2011 NCAA Soccer Preview – SEC – “You’re Not Famous Any More”

Holly King

Mountain In The Middle - Florida's Holly King Figures To Dominate In Midfield Again

Way, way back when I wrote something in the vein of “the SEC isn’t relevant nationally any more,” I perhaps envisioned that the teams around the league would be buoyed by the jibe, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and rallying to work themselves back up the hierarchies of conferences across the country. Instead, the opposite happened, and the SEC endured arguably its worse season as a conference in many a year.

A league which had been used to getting in the neighborhood of five bids in the NCAA Tournament suddenly found themselves with just three bids to the Big Dance, and Auburn’s ticket was a mighty tight squeeze in the end. If the SEC was hoping that its representatives would win back a little pride for the league, they’d be sorely disappointed by the end of the first weekend. Auburn was bounced at the first hurdle by South Florida, while the league’s two other teams that had made it into the field of sixty-four would go home after the second round. South Carolina did well to beat UNC Greensboro in the first round but would be utterly outclassed by Virginia in round two. That was a more palatable exit than Florida’s penalty defeat to a Duke team that had largely outplayed them.

Some might have blamed a grueling weather delayed SEC Tournament that had forced the Gators and Gamecocks to play three exhausting games in four days. Still though, the league hasn’t had a representative in the College Cup in a long while and hasn’t had a serious threat to breach the Final Four in almost as long. Without a doubt, Florida are the best hope to break the league’s long duck, but questions about the SEC champs’ ability to deliver in the high stakes of the NCAA Tournament will linger until UF comes good.

There are questions galore elsewhere through the league. South Carolina look the pick of the rest, but whether this team can make extended progress through November is very much in doubt. Everyone else will likely be scrambling for an NCAA Tournament bid, which is very much not a guarantee for the other ten teams. The remaining cast of characters in the conference are also largely a mystery. LSU and Georgia will be looking for fightbacks after down seasons, while Tennessee will be looking to recapture some of their glory days. Auburn look again to be bubble battlers, while Kentucky will be hoping to ride a new wave of optimism back to the Big Dance. Everyone else will likely be in a fight to just make it to Orange Beach and the SEC Tournament.

(Teams listed in order of final 2010 RPI ranking.)

Though they continue to terrorize the SEC, there is mounting evidence that FLORIDA‘s powers as a contender on the national stage are waning. One only needs to look at last season’s limp flameout in the NCAA Tournament second round against Duke to realize that the program that once boasted Abby Wambach, Heather Mitts, and Danielle Fotopoulos is struggling to keep up with the old guard and the new rising wave of national contenders. Though the program has consistently been among the top teams in the final RPI calculations and has often delivered the goods in the regular season, Florida has more often than not seen their fair share of stumbles in the postseason in recent years.

It hasn’t always been this way for Head Coach Becky Burleigh’s Gators. Florida were an immediate hit in the SEC, winning the double in their second season in the league in 1996. It was UF’s NCAA Tournament successes that caught the eye though. In their very first trip to the Big Dance and only the second year of existence for the program, the Gators made a run all the way to the Elite Eight before being taught a harsh lesson by a rampant North Carolina team. It was just the beginning of a dominant run in the SEC for Florida who lapped the field in the league over the next half-decade, doing the double for six straight seasons, a stunning show of dominant consistency.

The crowning moment for Burleigh and the Gators came in the 1998 College Cup final against their vaunted nemesis, North Carolina. In one of the most controversial and infamous matches in college soccer history, Florida took an early lead off a stunning Fotopoulos free kick and then employed a cynical Whack-A-Tar Heel gameplan that, among other things, sent UNC defender Danielle Borgman to the hospital. The final foul count was 31-4 to the Gators. The scoreline was 1-0 to Florida as well, which was really the only thing that mattered in the end. Florida were champions, with the senior Fotopoulos and a freshman Wambach shining brightly though Florida had made few friends on that afternoon in Greensboro.

The future looked bright with three more years of Wambach in Gainesville at Burleigh’s disposal, but things didn’t quite work out the way many anticipated at UF. While the Gators were still a major force in the SEC, their form in the NCAA Tournament slipped dramatically losing to Hartford and then Florida State in the first round of the Big Dance. Wambach and her fellow seniors would do the double for the fourth straight season in 2001 and finally enjoy some more NCAA Tournament success, making a run all the way back to the College Cup before being thwarted by Santa Clara in an extra-time thriller, 3-2.

Life without Wambach was perhaps more difficult than expected. Florida gave up their league title and wouldn’t get it back until 2006. The Gators would miss out entirely on the NCAA Tournament in the first year without Wambach, snapping a six-year streak of being in the Big Dance. Florida would make a happy return in 2003, getting back to the Elite Eight, but it’s been mostly frustration since then. The Gators finally hit the target in the league in 2006 and have hardly looked back since in the SEC but have found progress in the NCAA Tournament an increasingly difficult proposition. After being eliminated in 2004 and 2005 in the first round, the former in humiliating fashion by upstart state rivals Central Florida, Florida managed to make it back to the Sweet Sixteen before being dispatched by UCLA.

2007’s double winning team fell at the same hurdle, going down to Los Angeles’ other major team, eventual National Champs USC, in the Los Angeles Coliseum on some dodgy turf in a match some Gator fans still grumble about. 2008 brought about an unmatched level of domination in SEC league play, the Gators winning each and every regular season match in conference action, the first time an SEC school had done so since the format of the league season changed to a round robin where everyone played everyone else once. Florida had played with fire all through the league season though and were burned in a bad way in the SEC Tournament semi-finals where they were humiliated by Georgia in a 3-0 defeat that ended their long SEC unbeaten run and went down as one of the worst defeats in program history. Florida would get back to the Sweet Sixteen for the third straight season but would again see their progress halted at that stage, this time by Texas A&M.

2009 was a testing season that saw the Gators battle upsets and road woes to squeak their way to a title that they could have easily lost to Ole Miss down the stretch. But Florida’s postseason struggles would creep up on them again, as they fell to South Carolina in the SEC Tournament semi-finals and would then be shocked in the second round of the NCAA Tournament by an upstart Oregon State team in extra time. It led many to wonder if Florida’s days as a national power were numbered going into the 2010 season.

The new year certainly started out well enough. Florida topped always pesky rivals UCF and Florida State on the road before being held by Duke after conceding a late, late goal. It’d be the start of a worrying pattern of conceding late goals, but Florida would still fight North Carolina hard before losing 2-0 in the end. League play was a piece of cake in the first two weeks with four decisive wins including a 7-1 thrashing of Mississippi State. A road weekend in Alabama proved semi-disastrous though, the Gators drawing with Alabama after conceding late again before losing to Auburn in the dying seconds after giving up yet another late goal.

With their margin of error eliminated, Florida would rally for four straight wins, setting up another title decider against South Carolina on the road. In a controversial match, Florida would prevail on Nicky Kit’s first-half free kick, sealing the Gators’ fifth straight league title. Burleigh’s side would finally solve their Orange Beach hoodoo and win their first SEC Tournament title since 2007, playing some swashbuckling football all the while (at least before a disappointing final).

But three matches in four days thanks to weather issues in Orange Beach had been draining, and after disposing of Mercer in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Florida met exactly the last team any seeded side wants to meet early in the Big Dance, overachievers Duke. A lethargic Gators’ side was second best for most of the afternoon and could hardly have any complaints after being knocked out on penalties after a scoreless draw. The SEC wing of the trophy case continues to swell, but the 1998 National Title doesn’t look like getting any company any time soon based on recent evidence.

It’s been all change in some respects in Gainesville over the offseason. Florida has gone on a mad purge, thinning out their wildly bloated roster with a whopping SIXTEEN cuts, transfers, and others departing the team in addition to the seniors bidding farewell. The Gators still have plenty of faces to greet opponents with thanks to a large freshman class, but the turnover was a talking point for some as the new season approached. Also worth discussing is the changes to come on the defense going into the 2011 campaign.

For the first time in a while, the goal will be manned by someone other than the departed Katie Fraine. Fraine struggled through concentration problems, injuries, and inconsistency throughout her Florida career, but in the end, she was capable of some great saves and was an experienced set of hands between the pipes last year. Replacing her will fall to either senior Brooke Chancey or freshman Taylor Burke. Chancey hadn’t seen a minute of game action for the better part of three years in Gainesville, with just a smattering of mop-up duty in 2010 before getting the call to replace Fraine at the half in the SEC Tournament semi-final against Georgia.

Chancey was up to the task in that win and in the SEC Tournament title match against South Carolina as well, though Fraine returned for the NCAA Tournament. Despite her relative inexperience, Chancey still figures to get the first look for UF between the pipes this year. Burke’s a physical specimen at 6’1″ who’s also going to be on Florida’s track and field team and is one of the best young high jumpers in the country who set an Ohio state record in the event. While Burke might be the future in between the pipes, it remains to be seen if she’s the present as well, and the battle with Chancey could be a season long affair in Gainesville.

The play in goal is as important as ever for the Gators, because they also have to replace half the starting defense from last season’s title winners as well. It’s a good thing then that Florida boasts the league’s best defender and one of the nation’s very best in junior Kathryn Williamson. After getting a bit of a late start to her college career thanks to recover from an ACL tear in 2008, Williamson burst into the picture in 2009, the only Gator to start every match. The center-back was simply marvelous in her follow-up effort last year, earning second team All-America honors and being named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. A quick, indefatigable central defender, Williamson is often given the task of erasing the opponent’s top scoring option and usually does the job with clinical efficiency. Williamson is one of the top prospects for the 2013 WPS Draft and should again be an All-American candidate for the Gators.

Also returning for Florida is right-back Jazmyne Avant, one of the country’s best full-backs going forward and supporting the attack. The senior is a constant threat to get up the line and can be a nightmare to defend on the wing. The problem with Avant is that her defending at times leaves a lot to be desired, and she can still be prone to lapses in concentration in defense that have proven costly. But there’s few better at getting forward in the college ranks, and Avant will again be a weapon that has to be accounted for by opposing defenses.

The big question obviously is who will replace departed starters Ashlee Elliott and Nicky Kit on the backline. Elliott was all over the place on the pitch in her long Gator career, playing up front, as a defensive midfield destroyer, and finally as a center-back last season. Elliott was a bulldozer in the tackle and was always a threat in the air with her leaping ability and will be sorely missed. Kit wasn’t always a consistent left-back, but she was still dangerous when on her game, as South Carolina found out to their chagrin when Kit delivered the winning free kick in their league meeting last season that sealed a title for the Gators.

One of the leading candidates to step in is Brooke Thigpen, who spelled Kit at times and was one of the team’s top reserves when not starting. Thigpen is also capable in midfield if needed there and showed she has some goalscoring ability in 2009 with six goals and four assists for Florida. Other returning candidates for minutes include juniors Jo Dragotta and Katie Kadera. The team also adds in freshman Annie Bobbitt from the powerhouse Ponte Vedra team. Bobbitt’s a U17 international who played center-back at club level but may need to be switched outside for Florida due to her size (5’4″). Fellow freshmen Kim Sapienza and Lauren Silver could also come in and make an impact as rookies this year. There’s some reorganizing to do for sure, but with talented returnees, including Williamson, and promising newcomers, there’s no reason to expect a serious drop in production.

Describing things further forward is a little tougher to be perfectly honest. Florida’s 4-2-3-1 formation is a fluid setup capable of sticking a lot of talented parts in different positions. Really, the only thing known for certain is that Erika Tymrak will be the orchestrator in midfield while Holly King will be be part of the double pivot in front of the defense destroying everything in sight.

Tymrak’s a special, special player who may go down as one of the best ever to play in Gainesville, quite the feat when you consider some of who that includes. One of the best playmakers in the country, Tymrak has had the keys to the Florida offense from the very beginning as a freshman in 2009 and has been the provider for many gorgeous Gator goals in two seasons. Capable of destroying teams nearly singlehandedly with her exquisite vision and passing (see 2010 SEC Tournament semi-final against Georgia), Tymrak could build further on her thirteen assists from a season ago and is also good for a handful of goals each year as well with her fine long range shooting ability.

With such a prodigy in midfield, you better have some muscle backing her up, especially in the rough and tumble SEC. Fortunately for the Gators, they’ve got that in rugged junior Holly King. Though she may not win many awards for the dirty work done in the middle, King is midfield wrecking ball that is critical to Florida’s style of play. Excellent in the air and tough in the tackle, King should again be one of the nation’s unsung heroines and an invaluable asset for Burleigh and co.

In a more attacking role, likely right behind the center striker, should be senior Tahnai Annis. A fourth team All-American in 2010, Annis is a wonderfully unique player in the college ranks who plays her role in the Gator formation to a T. Annis got many of her thirteen goals last season by doing what she does best, arriving late in the box, just at the right moment, and prodding the ball into the net. Annis has got it down to a fine art, and her sense of clutch scoring is a big boon for the Gators as well, the Ohio native having scored countless of match tying or winning goals in her Florida career. For someone 5’1″, Annis is also pretty good in the air as well and can add the rare headed goal also. Annis saved much of her best for league play and led the team in SEC points with seventeen, good for second in the league.

Main goalscoring duties could fall to junior McKenzie Barney. Barney ended 2009 like a house afire with seven goals in league play, helping fuel Florida to another league title. With that strong finish, expectations were sky high for the Washingtonian, and Barney more than delivered with fourteen goals for Florida. Barney also set a program record for most consecutive home matches with a goal with nine, impressive stuff considering who has come before her in Gainesville. One slight critique was that Barney cooled down a bit in SEC action, with only four goals in league play, something that the junior will look to correct this season.

Though Tymrak got most of the headlines last year in midfield, there was also room for high praise for sophomore Taylor Travis. Travis came into Gainesville with a steady slew of hype behind her and lived up to her advance billing and more. The SEC Freshman of the Year for 2010, Travis was simply smashing as a rookie with three goals (all match winners) and eleven assists. Travis led the conference in assists in league matches with seven, a great achievement considering some of the other playmakers in the conference, including her teammate Tymrak. Travis should, again, be one of the SEC’s best and is a dangerous playmaker to fall back on if Tymrak should be struggling.

Also in the mix for time either in midfield or as the striker up top is senior Lindsay Thompson. Thompson’s a bit of a confounding figure for the Gators. The veteran was a super sub as a rookie with seven goals in 2008 before looking like one of the league’s top attackers in 2009 with ten goals as she started twenty-three matches. Expected to be a big part of the offense in 2010, Thompson instead floated in and out of the starting lineup for the Gators and generally took a backseat to Barney in the goalscoring department. But Thompson still had the ability to heat up like a microwave, scoring seven of her eight goals in just three matches. When she’s on, Thompson is indomitable, as her hat trick against Georgia in the SEC Tournament attests to.

Other contenders for time in midfield that are returning include Sarah Chapman and Caroline Triglia, both possibilities to start alongside King as a part of Florida’s double pivot in midfield, and utility player Maggie Rodgers, who played in seventeen matches last season. Of course, none of that really accounts for some of the top notch freshman talent Florida’s bringing in for the new season. Local product Havana Solaun is a big midfielder and yet another player from this past Ponte Vedra team. Solaun’s a U17 international who was also an unfortunate member of last year’s failed U17 World Cup qualifying effort but is still plenty talented and could be one of this year’s top freshmen in all the land.

Also figuring into the midfield equation is Annie Speese. Speese caused a little bit of a hubbub after initially committing verbally to rival SEC side Georgia before backing out and signing with Florida after the coaching change in Athens. Speese is one of the first Georgians to play for the Gators in quite some while and will be in for an interesting reception in Athens for this year’s derby game considering her past. There’s also firepower up front for the Gators in this year’s rookie class.

Tessa Andujar looks set to continue Florida’s proud tradition of bringing in talented Californians, and Andujar is a Puerto Rican youth international and played club ball with the strong Slammers FC club side. Another contender for early minutes up front is Jillian Graff, joining Burke and Annis as products from Ohio on the Gator roster. As always, things are fluid in Florida’s lineup, meaning it may be hard to nail down positions for the newcomers until the season develops.

Florida again looks the class of the league, with enough depth to make their league rivals green with envy. Many of the players Florida will be bringing off the bench could walk into any SEC first team, or the first team for almost every team throughout the country. The Gators have one of the nation’s best defenders in Williamson, one of the nation’s best midfielders in Tymrak, and no shortage of players who can put the ball in the back of the net. The recruiting class is as talented as any that have come through Gainesville and should add even more strength to this Florida program. The biggest question mark looks to be in goal after Fraine’s graduation, and one wonders if the inexperience of Chancey and Burke could end up costing Florida somewhere down the line.

It could be far, far down the line though for this Gator team. It would be quite the shock if they did not win the league once again, and they’d have to be favorites to lift the SEC Tournament trophy in Orange Beach as well. But the true test of Florida’s might will come in the NCAA Tournament. The Gators are probably more than sick of being reminded about their early flameouts in recent years, but they need to go about setting things right this year. There’s simply no excuse for this team to not win at the very least two games, and they should be pushing further from there. The talent is clearly there for an extended run into late November, but Florida still has it all to prove against the best of the best in the Big Dance.

A half a decade ago if you looked into a crystal ball and asked where SOUTH CAROLINA would be shortly before the beginning of the 2011 season, you probably wouldn’t answer “in the position of being Florida’s biggest rivals in the SEC”. Heading into 2006, the Gamecocks were anything but contenders in the league, coming of two straight losing seasons, including an abject 6-12 campaign in 2005 that probably had some wondering if Head Coach Shelley Smith was the right person for the job.

Smith took over for Sue Kelly in 2001 after years of underachievement and a dreadful 2000 season that saw the Gamecocks go 4-16-0 overall en route to finishing bottom of the league. Smith was undoubtedly used to fixer-uppers, having taken a similarly moribund Rhode Island program into winning territory in the span of just a few seasons. The SEC was a tougher nut to crack though, and Smith’s results were inconsistent to say the least. A fifth place finish in 2002 was a great achievement, but the program then missed out on the postseason in two of her next three seasons.

As the heat conceivably began to rise in Columbia, so did the profile of the Gamecocks as they began to climb the ladder in the SEC. Though they were some way off the bubble in 2006, they did manage a fifth place finish and advanced to the SEC Tournament semi-finals for the first time in the history of the program. It set up a fantastic 2007 season, where the Gamecocks won fourteen matches, including a 1-0 win in Chapel Hill in the season opener against North Carolina, the most for the program since 1999. Coincidentally, SC also returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998 that year.

2008 was a more difficult year, and Smith’s side most definitely were one of the very last sides into the Big Dance and ended the season still looking for their first NCAA Tournament win after a contentious loss to William & Mary. South Carolina’s progress would come to a head in 2009, when the Gamecocks would break through in a big way. SC would win eleven in a row to open up the season, profiting under a withering defense and hanging in the SEC title race until late.

The Gamecocks would shine brightest in Orange Beach and the SEC Tournament though, avenging all three of their regular season defeats by beating Georgia, Florida, and LSU in succession to lift their first major trophy. The last victory over the Tigers was after penalties and a stunning comeback with a last minute equalizer in normal time from captain Blakely Mattern in a classic encounter. The Gamecocks would advance all the way to the Sweet Sixteen, winning the first two NCAA Tournament matches in program history before falling to Wake Forest on a literal last second header from a corner in an unbelievable ending.

Carolina entered 2010 hoping to go one better in the league and be the one to finally topple all-conquering Florida from their perch on top of the SEC. A season opening win at Boston University was impressive considering the kind of year the Terriers would go on to have, but a home opener loss to Louisville was significantly less so. The Gamecocks would be beaten back by Minnesota rather emphatically in Columbia as it appeared that some of their home mystique was beginning to fade but made up for that disappointment with a 1-0 revenge win over last season’s vanquishers, Wake Forest, in Winston-Salem.

SEC season started out with an atypical stutter as SC went to a scoreless draw in Nashville with Vanderbilt. It’d be the last such stutter for a while, as Smith’s side cranked up the offense with twenty goals in their next five matches, all wins. Bogey side Georgia would come to The Graveyard and escape with a 1-0 win, denting USC’s title hopes, but three wins in a row would set up a winner takes all showdown at home in Columbia between the home side and Florida. As has been the case so often between the two sides, it was a tight contest that came down to some controversy as the Gators’ Nicky Kit scored on a free kick near the end of the first half that had the Gamecocks faithful howling.

Anxious for a shot at revenge, as had been the case the season before, SC went in to Orange Beach on a mission. It would just take a much more difficult road to get to the ultimate destination. Carolina’s normally stalwart defense twice blew leads in the final quarter of an hour, and Smith’s side had to ride their luck in shootouts both times to advance to the final. Florida was waiting for them. It was a lethargic final, no doubt hampered by the opening round being pushed back a day due to unplayable conditions after a downpour. The Gamecocks would be second best for much of the day and would fall, 1-0, on a second half own goal.

Smith’s side would still be NCAA Tournament bound though and ended up prevailing in a tough draw against a tenacious UNC Greensboro team in the opening round. But cultured regional hosts Virginia were just too slick for the Gamecocks in the second round and sliced through South Carolina with ease in a 3-0 whitewash.

Shelley Smith’s side will be hoping the third time is the charm when it comes to the prospect of knocking the Gators off their perch at the top of the SEC. For a side whose calling card has been its strong defense over the past few seasons, it’s the Gamecocks’ offense that could catch most of the headlines this season. That’s because it’s the senior season for one of the country’s preeminent goalmouth predators, Kayla Grimsley. It’s surely no coincidence that South Carolina’s rapid rise up the SEC ranks has coincided with Grimsley’s ascension into the discussion as one of the top forwards in the country.

After scorching the SEC to the tune of eight goals and six assists as a freshman, Grimsley continued to write her name in the annals of Gamecock history as a sophomore with thirteen goals and seven assists, earning herself a look in U.S. U20 camp after the 2009 season. There would be no let up in 2010, as Grimsley continued her assault on the South Carolina record book with double figure tallies in both goals and assists for the Gamecocks. Of Grimsley’s twelve goals and ten assists, nine of the former and four of the latter were in league play, putting her on top of the SEC heap by a full five points over her next closest rival and making her a no-brainer selection for SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors.

An aggressive and fiery competitor on the pitch, Grimsley will be in the crosshairs for Carolina again this year with breaking the program’s career assist record a formality, and Jennie Ondo’s career points record well within grasp for the senior. SC’s star forward is a multi-talented player, able to get her teammates involved in the scoring through her creativity while also functioning at times in a ‘false nine’ role, dropping into midfield to help win possession and run at defenses from a deeper position. Grimsley will likely be aiming to impress professional scouts in 2011 as well, with the Lakeland, Florida native likely rating as a late-round pick in this January’s WPS Draft at the moment.

The million dollar question for the Gamecocks this year is where Grimsley’s support is going to come from. Grimsley rightfully got most of the headlines, but she was ably supported by the departed Brooke Jacobs. After beginning her Gamecocks career as something of a bit player, Jacobs developed into a faithful second scorer for SC, hitting for six goals as a junior before reaching a career best with seven goals and four assists last year. Despite missing three matches through injury in the league season, Jacobs still racked up thirteen points in SEC action, good enough for fourth in the conference. Her loss is one that cuts deeply and leaves Smith scrambling for a second scoring option beside Grimsley.

The best option for replacing that lost offense likely comes in the form of sophomore Danielle Au. A steal out of Georgia for the Gamecocks last year, Au showed real flashes of brilliance with five goals and three assists as a freshman, including three match winning goals, second on the team behind Grimsley. Au hasn’t come close to hitting her ceiling yet, and if she can iron out some of the inconsistencies in her game, will be a real factor in the present and future of the Gamecocks.

The only other player who showed any real goalscoring chops last season for Carolina was career reserve Lolly Holland, who heated up at the beginning of SEC play, scoring in three straight league matches before cooling down again. She figures to be one of the favorites to fill the spot up front vacated by Jacobs but may also end up in midfield for the Gamecocks. Maria Petroni also started up front as the team’s left forward but only managed two goals and three assists and does not look like the answer as a consistent scoring threat. Threats off the bench include Rae Wilson, Natalie Aaron, and Sam McGowan, the latter of whom could have a breakout season another year removed from an ACL injury. Getting someone other than Grimsley firing is key if SC doesn’t want their talisman to be fighting through waves of defenders on a constant basis.

South Carolina’s midfield is hardly the most dynamic unit in the country but does the dirty work efficiently and effective behind the forwards. The Gamecocks do have to deal with an unexpected loss though with the early departure of Kira Campbell who filled a starting role in 2010 for the team. Sophomore Elizabeth Sinclair might be the team’s new midfield leader after impressing in twenty-three starts as a freshman in a defensive midfield role. Senior Kortney Rhoades should be a contender for another starting spot in midfield. Rhoades started twenty-four matches in 2009 but struggled after preseason ankle surgery last year and was held to very limited minutes. Some of the freshmen, Mexican U20 international Samantha Gonzalez, or the versatile Au or Holland figure to fill any remaining gaps.

A year after the defense lost authoritative center-back star Blakely Mattern, they must now do without marauding left-back Brittiny Rhoades. A four-year starter for the Gamecocks, Rhoades was a consummate two-way player for Smith’s side, an able defender out wide while also more than capable of jetting forward and supporting the attack. South Carolina’s new defensive leader should be senior center-back Ellen Fahey, another Gamecock who looks destined to be a four-year starter in Columbia. A big, physical defender, Fahey will be counted on as a vocal leader in a defensive unit that has excelled for many a year now. Fahey’s center-back partner Dani Henry also returns, and the Gamecocks should have one of the best central defense pairings in the league this year.

It’s out wide where there’s some concern, with the loss of Rhoades and Christine Watts, who stepped up into a starting role last year after being a key reserve in 2009. Canadian sophomore Gabrielle Gilbert is one option to replace Rhoades after a season as one of South Carolina’s top reserves. Gilbert’s versatility and ability to play across the backline will certainly help her cause if Smith needs to reshuffle the back four a bit. Ali Glemser’s another multitalented option in defense if she isn’t thrown in up front for the Gamecocks. Also likely to gain minutes early on in her collegiate career is freshman Christa Neary, arguably the program’s best field player recruit of this season and someone who can round into a leader in the future for SC.

In goal, Carolina loses a three-year starter in Mollie Patton but probably won’t be sweating too much thanks to an addition from this season’s recruiting class. Canadian Sabrina D’Angelo is one of the top goalkeeper recruits of the 2011 recruiting class and should have little trouble winning the starting job in Columbia from day one. Canada’s starting keeper at the 2010 U17 World Cup, D’Angelo has since graduated to the U20s and could be a future full Canadian international in goal. Given all the turnover and inconsistency in between the pipes around the SEC this offseason, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that D’Angelo establishes herself as one of the league’s best keepers right off the bat as a freshman. The likely backup is sophomore Darien Vercillo, who came into Columbia highly regarded but has yet to see game action.

Has South Carolina risen to the position of being a program that can reload instead of rebuild in the SEC? It’s tough to say, as the biggest piece remains in Grimsley, but the Gamecocks lose three key players in Patton, Rhoades, and Jacobs. Patton’s departure should be taken care of with the entrance of D’Angelo, and the Carolina defense has a lot of talent left and coming in, even if Rhoades’ loss will be felt. But Jacobs’ loss could be the key one for Smith’s team this year. Grimsley is a fantastic forward, but surely she’s going to need help from her teammates if Carolina are to be able to break down the better teams they stare down this season.

Au’s development could be vital for the Gamecocks. If she can turn into a player of Jacobs’ quality this season, things might open up for South Carolina going forward. If not, Grimsley could be facing a never ending stream of defenders coming her way, possibly dragging the offense down. The Gamecocks should be good enough to maintain their post in the top tier of the SEC and are dark horse title contenders in the league if the offense stays humming.

The first year of a new dawn at GEORGIA, in the end, was all a bit disappointing. The Bulldogs, still looking for their first major trophy, saw a three year NCAA Tournament streak snapped amidst another mid-table finish for a side that had looked like challenging Florida at the top of the league just a few seasons ago. Yet playing second fiddle to the fierce rivals down south has been the constant for the Athens side for the better part of a decade and a half. Georgia started out as a respectable side in the mid-nineties that managed to make it to the Sweet Sixteen in 1998 but never really threatened for league titles or other silverware in the five year reign of Bill Barker.

After some success at Minnesota, Sue Patberg journeyed down to UGA to try and get the Bulldogs over the hump. But consistency for UGA in the Patberg era was never a strong suit and the Bulldogs bounced up and down the SEC table with regularity. Patberg led Georgia to two appearance in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but she also saw the team to two losing seasons, including a year where the program bottomed out at 4-9-5 in 2004, leading to yet another change at the top of ticket for the Bulldogs. The next five years were marked by a rise towards the upper reaches of the SEC but also by some crushing failures just as the program seemed to be set to take the next step towards the elite of the league.

2007 saw UGA come tantalizingly close to a shock league title, as the program beat Florida for the first time in program history and finished just behind the Gators in the final league table. Georgia would get to the SEC Tournament final as well but were spanked by a Florida team desperate for revenge. The Bulldogs would find little solace in the NCAA Tournament either, being upset by opportunistic Duke in the second round.

2008 saw Georgia sink back to .500 after playing a suicidal non-conference schedule and needing a rally through the SEC Tournament to make it back to the Big Dance. UGA ended up playing well towards the end of the season and made it to the SEC Tournament final for the second year running but were dealt a stunning defeat at the hands of a Tennessee team they had beaten easily a little more than a week earlier. The Bulldogs would be humbled further in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, dropping a match to CAA side James Madison.

At this point, the program seemed to sink into decline. 2009 may have seen UGA make it back to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but they were also crushed by LSU in Baton Rouge, 6-0, and also dealt damaging losses by sides like Ole Miss and Auburn. With a veteran side, mid-table and elimination at the quarterfinal stage in the SEC Tournament was very much against expectations going into the season.

That the head coaching job came open in the spring may have been a bit of a shock at the time, but many thought some new blood in the hot seat could do the program some good. That that new face was Ole Miss Head Coach Steve Holeman was certainly not expected, as most believed a promotion from within was in the cards. Holeman certainly knew the territory having been a long-time coach in the SEC with Auburn and Ole Miss and had overachieved with the Rebels at times.

But considering the lack of trophies he had brought to Oxford, it was a bit of an eyebrow raising appointment, especially for a program aspiring for a rise into the nation’s elite. Holeman inherited one of the most talented recruiting classes for 2010 in the country though, so despite the losses of career offensive points leader Carrie Patterson and star goalkeeper Michelle Betos, there was reason for optimism entering the new campaign.

The Bulldogs started out reasonably well after an opening loss to Duke. The Bulldogs pounded Utah and Kansas, wins that looked great at the time before rallying to beat state rival Mercer and then thumping Georgia State on the road. Even in defeat to Stanford, UGA looked competitive, leading the Cardinal before falling prey to a late comeback. Georgia would also draw with Santa Clara on that trip out west, leaving the Bulldog faithful with high hopes going into SEC season.

But cracks began to emerge as league play rolled forward. The Bulldogs were able to gain a share of revenge for recent woes against LSU with a 1-0 win against the Tigers in Athens, but the offense started to sputter in a bad way. They couldn’t find the back of the net against Arkansas, though the match was played in near monsoon conditions. And then despite having good scoring opportunities, the Bulldogs went on to draw two of their next three matches, scoring only twice. Considering UGA hadn’t come up against the meat of the league schedule, to have scored only three in five must have been sending alarm bells ringing in Athens.

Georgia was still able to rely on a strong defense though, conceding only one in those first five matches, and the Bulldogs looked to be on the right track following wins at Mississippi State and South Carolina. But Holeman’s side were treading very closely to the NCAA Tournament bubble and really needed a signature win to hang their hat on. The victory over the Gamecocks had helped but guaranteed nothing. At this point, Georgia’s defense started to unravel, along with their season. The once airtight defense started leaking goals, conceding a pair of goals in three of their next four to finish the regular season. Coincidentally, the Bulldogs lost all three of those matches, 2-1.

It left Georgia in the position of needing to make serious progress in the SEC Tournament and have results elsewhere swing their way. A win over bubble rivals Auburn in the quarterfinals, Georgia’s first over their rivals since 2007, helped but upsets elsewhere meant that UGA likely needed victory against Florida to feel safe. They didn’t get it, eventually being slashed apart by the Florida attacking game in a 3-1 defeat. They also didn’t get any love from the NCAA Tournament selection committee. The win over South Carolina and draw against Santa Clara just weren’t enough to overcome the litany of bad draws and late season losses that piled up on the Bulldogs.

Holeman will be hoping for a happier conclusion to 2011, knowing he has a side bristling with young talent. The Bulldogs will be hoping for more of the defense that stifled most SEC sides in the first half of the league schedule and less of the unit that too often played matador defense in the last half of the conference campaign. Georgia returns most of the starting backline, including physical center-back duo Tori Allen and Bailey Powell. Allen came to Athens highly regarded as a U.S. U18 youth international and boosted her reputation further with a strong season in defense despite being undersized for a center-back (5’4″). The promising sophomore could also be used as a change of pace up front if the team is looking for a different option up top.

Powell is far from being undersized at 5’11” and formed a great partnership with Allen in back. Powell was also able to stay relatively healthy last season, a relief after an injury riddled 2009 season. At full-back, junior Rebekah Perry made a successful transition after spending her freshman season as a promising winger and could be even better as she gets more experienced playing the position. The team loses left-back Kelli Corless to graduation but should be able to slide in Canadian youth international Nikki Hill who provided pace and energy off the bench as a substitute last season. The Bulldogs will also likely use senior Jenna Buckley as a utility defender, with the Atlanta product able to generally slot in anywhere on the backline. Georgia will also be hoping to get a big contribution from sophomore Rileigh McHugh who didn’t see action last year despite coming in as one of Georgia’s most promising recruits. In goal,

Ashley Baker is the undisputed #1, and the England youth international has already displayed a great penchant for making stunning reflex saves. But Baker’s decision making and handling of crosses are still a work in progress though both areas should see improvement with more experience in goal. There’s basically no experience behind her, with untested sophomores Caitlin Woody and Callie Corbin Langford getting competition for the backup role from true freshman Kathleen Eastman.

Georgia’s offense is more of an unsettled proposition heading into the new season. Holeman’s squads at Ole Miss often had problems scoring goals, and his first team at UGA suffered similarly. Replacing all-time program points scorer Carrie Patterson was never going to be an easy task, but Georgia did add talented newcomer Alexa Newfield, well on her way to becoming one of the SEC’s top attacking threats. A natural winger with a big bag of tricks and a thunderbolt of a shot from distance, Newfield didn’t disappoint in her first season of collegiate ball, with eight goals and four assists. Newfield’s five goals in SEC play put her in a tie for fourth in the league, and she could approach double digit goals in 2011.

Beyond her? That’s the major question. Nicole Locandro came into her freshman season like a lion with five goals and four assists but went out like a lamb, only notching a single assist in league play. Locandro could see time either up top or in midfield for UGA this year. Meghan Gibbons showed sparks of potential in her freshman year with eight goals but did the vast majority of her scoring against lesser opposition. Featured mainly as a super sub last year, Gibbons could be one of those in line for more starting minutes if she starts the year in good form. Sophomore Carli Shultis is another with a chance to gain more minutes after some positive moments in her freshman campaign, tallying five assists on the year. Senior Ashley Miller slumped badly in 2010 after scoring six goals and adding six assists a year earlier, dropping to just one goal and two assists as a junior.

Georgia might have the most concerns in midfield though. Last year’s group was very functional and added little to the offense on a consistent basis. The team loses starter Traci Dreesen who showed flashes of brilliance in her senior year, especially against Auburn in the SEC Tournament win over the Tigers. The Bulldogs often played with two defensive midfielders last season, with senior Jamie Pollock and junior Laura Eddy filling the role. Eddy in particular is an odd case for UGA. After excelling as a ball playing center-back as a freshman, Eddy was shuttled around midfield and the attack for much of 2010 and never really looked comfortable in any role. Eddy tore her ACL in preseason though, leaving even more worries in the midfield for Holeman’s squad.

Pollock looks the closest the team has to a defensive presence in the midfield but is still a converted attacking midfielder, as you might discern from her bullet of a long range shot. Also with a chance to feature in midfield is junior Susannah Dennis, who came to Athens with plenty of accolades and plaudits but who, on the whole, has struggled with injury and inconsistency since. The quality is there, it’s just a matter of harnessing it for Georgia coach Steve Holeman who may also try to use Dennis as a wing forward to try and spark the attack. This year’s recruiting class is nowhere near as star studded as last season’s effort, but the recruits most likely to make an impact is Real Colorado midfielder Jenna Owens, who could displace some of the returnees in the starting lineup should inconsistency or ineffectiveness crop up once again.

After last season’s shortcomings, Holeman will likely enter 2011 under pressure to get his side back into the NCAA Tournament after the program’s three year Big Dance streak came to an abrupt halt. The defense should be among the league’s best, and returning an experienced, if somewhat mercurial, keeper in Baker should be a big boost considering the goalkeeping concerns of the rest of the league. The offense beyond the excellent Newfield is the real hang-up about UGA’s hopes of a title challenge.

There’s plenty of upside but also a lot of inconsistency and volatility in the midfield and attack, meaning a sudden upward surge in goals from the Athens side isn’t a given. It adds up to much of the same as last year with the Bulldogs, a probable finish in upper-mid table in the league and more flirtations with the bubble come Selection Monday. This time though, UGA might fancy their chances of being on the right side of the equation come decision day.

Senior Katy Frierson was likely going down as one of AUBURN‘s all-time greats before the events of October 29th last season, but on that fateful night, Frierson sealed her place in the hearts of Tigers supporters as nothing short of a cult heroine. Down 1-0 to deadly rivals Alabama in the final match of the regular season, the Tigers faced nothing short of oblivion if the scoreline held. The confluence of results elsewhere had Auburn staring at a finish outside of the Top Eight in the league and being left out of the SEC Tournament, an unthinkable outcome at the beginning of the season. But with the Tigers staring down elimination and quite possibly, humiliation, Frierson served in a free kick with seventeen seconds left and Julie King was able to drive a header into the back of the goal. Frierson assisted on the golden goal in the first half of extra time as well, setting off rapturous celebrations on The Plains as Auburn saved their season and ended the Crimson Tide’s.

But some time after the initial euphoria had waned, some Tigers supporters must surely have asked if it had truly come to this: Wasn’t Frierson’s arrival supposed to signal some kind of great sea change that would have swept Auburn past the need to rely on such last gasp wins to reach the postseason? For better or for worse, the Tigers have been the bulwark of SEC consistency for much of the past decade. With the exception of a lone title triumph in 2002, the Tigers have usually been lodged in mid-table in the league, have often been little more than first-round fodder in Orange Beach, and have always been bounced from the Big Dance before the end of the first weekend.

Of course, there was something to be said about qualifying for six out of seven possible NCAA Tournaments from 2001-2007 in a league where most of the programs struggle for year-to-year consistency. But most agreed that Head Coach Karen Hoppa had scored a major coup with the signing of local product Frierson, widely regarded as one of the top five players in her recruiting class. Players of Frierson’s calibre just didn’t end up at programs like Auburn, and the general feeling was that the addition of the talented Homewood native would by just the thing to spur the Tigers towards an eventual title challenge.

2008 was a roller coaster ride for the Tigers. Frierson was just about as good as advertised, but the team around her went through some severe growing pains The Tigers were quite frankly a little lucky to get an at-large invite to the Big Dance while ludicrously being chosen to host a regional and given a favorable matchup against Belmont in the first round of the tournament. Instead of taking a step forward in 2009, the Tigers seemed to move laterally, dropping to sixth in the league and needing a four match winning streak including the first round of the SEC Tournament to lock up their fourth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.

The Tigers entered 2010 with supporters wondering if this would finally be the year the Frierson led Auburn side made their quantum leap forward in the SEC standings. The early signs last season were very promising. Despite an early (and through) setback to Marquette, Auburn topped Wisconsin-Milwaukee and then stunned Florida State at home, 3-2, through a Frierson winner to make some serious waves. The Tigers would drop a 1-0 decision on the road to USC, but won their next two, including a final non-conference tune-up against state rivals Samford, a team that had drawn Auburn the year before. While they didn’t enter the SEC slate as title favorites, they looked to be one of the better teams in the league entering conference play.

It didn’t quite work out that way. The Tigers did win two of their first three, but those victories came against league lowlights Mississippi State and Arkansas, while the loss against Ole Miss in a torrential downpour was a blow to the Tigers’ RPI. Auburn would then hit the skids in a major way, only winning one of their next six, losing to LSU and Tennessee while also drawing on the road against Vanderbilt and Kentucky. The Tigers’ NCAA Tournament hopes were fading fast and may have been extinguished entirely had Auburn’s one win during that horrid stretch not been over league champs Florida. Despite the win, the Tigers still needed more wins entering the last few fixtures of the regular season to ensure their NCAA Tournament streak wouldn’t be stopped in its tracks.

Auburn was also perilously close to the cutoff for SEC Tournament qualification. A win on the road at Georgia was an absolute must and kept the Tigers alive where Frierson’s heroics would then rule the day five days later. Auburn could’ve all but made their at-large bid a formality with a win over Georgia in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals but fell in extra time, 2-1, to make for a nervous wait on Selection Monday.

But with wins over Florida State and Florida in their back pocket, the Tigers got the benefit of the doubt and were quite possibly the last team into the field. The teams that lost out on that at-large bid undoubtedly were rueing their fate after the first round of the Big Dance though after Auburn laid an egg against South Florida, losing 3-1 and raising more questions about the current direction of the program in the process.

That direction only involves Frierson for one more season. The playmaking midfielder has cemented a spot on the U.S. U23 team, racked up numerous individual accolades, and is a likely early round pick in next January’s WPS Draft but faces ending her collegiate career without a trophy to her name or having made a deep run into the NCAA Tournament. Statistically, Frierson was better than ever last year, cracking double digits in assists for the second straight season with twelve while also managing eight goals as well, including four match winners.

After featuring as a deep lying midfielder in previous seasons, Frierson took on the role of a true #10 in a 4-4-2 diamond system that took advantage of the senior’s exemplary vision and playmaking ability. Auburn’s talisman is also a dangerous dead ball specialist who can bomb away with direct free kicks or drive in accurate corner kicks. In short, the offense runs through Frierson, and the Tigers will go as far as she takes them. But though the Tigers might have one of the college game’s best #10s, they’re still noticeably without a top flight #9.

The lack of a true center-forward was plainly evident last season as Auburn struggled to find a consistent goalscorer to relieve some of the burden from Frierson. The Tigers lose one starter up front from last year with Ashley Marks who departs after four goals last season to tie for second on the team. The only forward returnee with any sort of scoring form last season is lanky junior Mary Coffed, but Coffed seemed more comfortable in a distribution role as she chipped in with three times as many assists (nine) as she had goals (three).

Reserves Lydia Townsend and Kim Spence also return, though they only combined for a single goal last season. The incoming recruits are largely unknown commodities at this level. Tatiana Coleman from Florida’s Team Boca impressed at the USYS National Championships this year and looks like the forward newcomer most likely to make an impact with plenty of opportunities to lock down a starting role as a rookie.

With all that in mind, the offense might have to get a bulk of their goals from midfield. Frierson will help out in that regard, but there are also some other talents waiting to bubble up in midfield. The undersized combo of Ana Cate and Jessica Rightmer, who both stand at 5’1″, combined for seven goals last season and could be looked upon again to provide goals. Cate in particular is one to watch after she scored three goals in league play to tie for the team lead after not playing much in non-conference action. After only starting three matches last season, an increased role for the junior could pay dividends for Hoppa’s team.

Sophomore Maddie Barnes also returns after nine starts as a rookie, and the injured Barnes’ presence was missed in the team’s NCAA Tournament loss to South Florida. The three goals and three assists of injury plagued Gabi Rivera must be replaced though. One replacement could be Mexican youth international Ashley Kotero who was expected to achieve big things as a freshman after being a member of Mexico’s U20 World Cup squad in 2010. But Kotero rode the pine for most of the season with just five appearances off the bench. Hoppa might also get some good minutes from freshman midfielder Tess Patton this season, arguably the team’s highest regarded recruit of this class from Georgia club GSA.

Like the offense, Auburn’s defense last season was about middle of the road in the SEC. The Tigers return most of the same personnel but do lose two of their best defenders in center-back Sammy Towne, a tough as nails defender who broke her arm blocking a shot against North Carolina in 2009 and then returned to game action just one week later, and tough tackling Christine Schweer, who was a more surprising departure over the offseason. Auburn still has the services of senior Julie King though, younger sister of former Auburn attacker Caitlin, and one of the SEC’s top full-backs. While King is dangerous roaming forward, she’s also a tantalizing target on set pieces with her leaping and heading ability.

The other senior starter for Auburn on the backline is full-back Heather Havron, who helps out on corner kicks and started twenty matches last year with a pair of assists. The vacant starting spots on the backline could be filled by either of last season’s super subs, sophomores Jordan Miller or Bianca Sierra, the latter of whom was also a member of 2010’s Mexico U20 World Cup squad. Utility player Mary Nicholson, who saw time in both defense and midfield is also a contender for major minutes. A dark horse could be another of last year’s recruits, redshirt freshman Ali Elliott, sister of ex-Florida star Ashlee.

In goal, junior Amy Howard would have been the undisputed starter after playing every minute in goal last season for Auburn despite being subject to fits of erratic play mixed in with some stunning saves. Howard tore her ACL over the summer though, leaving massive question marks for the Tigers in goal. Redshirt freshman Chandler Hillen has received the initial nod in between the pipes but has some way to go to make the position her own in the long-term. She’ll be backed up by Caitlin Torie and walk-on Michelle Wacker, both juniors, this year.

At first glance, 2011 looks like a real crossroads season for Hoppa and the Auburn program. The long serving AU head coach was rightly lauded for the 2008 class that landed Frierson (and King) but has largely fired blanks since in the recruiting game. 2010’s group was seen by some as a Top 20 class by some, but on the whole, the group massively underachieved, with nobody forcing their way into the starting lineup consistently and many barely seeing the field at all. The title challenges expected with the arrival of Frierson haven’t materialized, with the Tigers finding themselves altogether too reliant on their All-American midfielder.

Auburn has had to struggle mightily to sneak into the back door of the Big Dance the last three seasons, and this year’s side isn’t appreciably better than those teams, meaning it’s probably going to be more of the same in 2011. The question that has to be asked if that’s the case this year, is if the Tigers couldn’t take a big leap forward with Frierson, what’s going to happen in 2012 without her?

LSU was given a stark reminder last season that despite the swift progress that has been made in recent years under Head Coach Brian Lee, the program still has some way to go before it can be considered a program that can just reload rather than rebuild. After a few seasons of swashbuckling, attacking football that delighted neutrals and terrorized SEC defenses, the Tigers were forced to cope with replacing some of the most successful attacking talent the program had seen come through Baton Rouge in a long while.

Lee had inherited a large scale rebuilding job in Louisiana after four years of the ill-fated reign of George and Danielle Fotopoulos bore little fruit and saw the Tigers propping up the SEC table in two of those four years, including in the final season of that era in 2003. Lee came over from Furman after turning the Paladins into a SoCon juggernaut, with the Tiger brass hoping that he’d be able to do the same with a largely dormant program in Baton Rouge.

It certainly wasn’t a quick fix by any means, with Lee struggling to lift the Tigers out of the doldrums in his first three seasons in charge, before finally making a breakthrough in his fourth season in Baton Rouge in 2007. In that season, the Tigers won twelve matches, their most since 2002, finished with a winning record in the league for the first season since 2000, and most importantly, finally broke the program’s long NCAA Tournament duck, grabbing an at-large bid and even advancing to the second round after a win against Samford.

2007 seemed to mark the beginning of a mini-Golden Age for the Tigers who promptly finished runners-up to Florida each of the next two seasons in the league. Postseason play would be a bit of a roller coaster for the Tigers though as they were eliminated at the semi-final stage on penalties in 2008 in the SEC Tournament before running out of gas after building a 2-0 lead against Washington in the NCAA Tournament in the same season and losing 3-2.

2009 looked to be their year in Orange Beach, especially after Florida went down in the semi-finals, but the nightmare of penalties crept up once more after the team blew a late lead against South Carolina and lost a tense shootout to the Gamecocks. The Tigers’ penalty hoodoo would continue in the NCAA Tournament that year also as despite hosting a regional, LSU crashed out to Texas A&M on spot kicks.

The end of the 2009 season also essentially marked the end of that Golden Generation for the Tigers as the program was racked by graduation up and down the starting lineup. Gone was the deadly attacking trio of Malorie Rutledge, Melissa Clarke, and Rachel Yepez, but the team also lost the services of stalwart defenders like Chelsea Potts as well. To try and compensate, Lee signed a star studded recruiting class that ranked among the nation’s best with the hope that the talented youngsters would be able to come in and keep the Tiger machine rolling.

It didn’t quite work out that way. U.S. youth international Jodi Calloway tore up her knee in Spring club ball, missing out on her freshman season as a result after being expected to come in and be a key defender right off the bat. And then, a couple of games into the season, arguably the team’s top recruit, forward Kaley Blades, another U.S. youth international, ripped up her knee and would miss the rest of the season. The rest of the freshmen? Well, they were typical freshmen, brilliant at times, maddeningly frustrating and inconsistent at others.

The temperamental form extended past the newcomers as well. Goalkeeper Mo Isom suffered a staggering loss of confidence and form and was replaced by freshman Megan Kinneman for good by mid-season. Sophomore forward Carlie Banks was largely a non-factor after turning a few heads in her freshman campaign. The result was a whole lot of shuffling with players not playing in their ideal positions as Lee tried desperately to contend with injuries and inconsistency. The Tigers went through a rough period in non-conference play where they failed to post a significant win over anyone with a pulse, their best result coming in a scoreless draw at BYU.

LSU’s poor form continued into league play, the team going winless in their first three. A brief revival saw the Tigers win two straight over Auburn and Kentucky before winning only one of their next five. Out of the last day madness in the SEC, LSU edged out Arkansas, 1-0, to seal sixth spot in the league, a far cry from the program’s lofty finishes of the past few seasons.

The Tigers would tame Tennessee in the SEC quarterfinals to keep their season alive for the moment before taking South Carolina to the brink in the semi-finals. But LSU’s old nemesis, the penalty shootout, would creep up again, and the Tigers would be sent tumbling out of the tournament on spot kicks again by budding rivals South Carolina. The defeat also ensured that the program’s three season NCAA Tournament streak came to a close.

A season on, Lee and LSU will be hoping that last season’s growing pains were merely a step backwards to take two steps forward this year. After being devastated by losses to graduation coming into last season, LSU looks to be nearly unscathed as they enter 2011. The only starter to depart is dependable utility player Courtney Alexander, who did a little bit of everything for the Tigers in her stay in Baton Rouge after transferring in from Southeast Missouri State. One of the primary goals for Lee entering this season will be to cure the woes that befell the offense after the wildly productive attack of the past couple of seasons fell so flat last year.

It was expected that Banks would be able to fill some of the void left behind by Rutledge and co. following their departure after 2009 after impressing as a freshman. But instead, Banks staggered through a sophomore slump in 2010. She may have scored five goals last season but only netted one time in league play, a disappointing return for one of the league’s brightest young freshman talents in 2009.

The other young Tigers leading the attack for Lee were plainly inconsistent. Blades looked like a budding force for the Tigers with two goals in four games but then was lost for the season through injury. Addie Eggleston shone the brightest, leading the team with three goals and eight assists while showing sparks of real talent up front for the Tigers. Eggleston was fitfully inconsistent at times though and didn’t score in league action, although she did chip in with three assists. Junior Reyna Lubin also figures to add depth to the forward corps after scoring three goals last season for the Bayou Bengals.

As if Lee didn’t have enough weapons to rule the roost over, the Tigers add in a couple more young, gifted forwards this season. Alex Cook looks like one of the best players to come out of Mississippi in recent years and could push for a starting spot immediately. Lexi Gibbs looks to also have the potential to crack the rotation for Lee and gain some minutes early in her collegiate career.

The forwards will be supported by an experienced and dangerous collection of midfielders. Canadian youth international Natalie Martineau is part of the Tigers’ budding collection of Canadian talent and more than lived up to the hype after transferring from Division II Montevallo. The versatile midfielder tied for the team lead in goals with five and was the leader in SEC play for the Tigers with three. With a full season of SEC experience under her belt, Martineau should be even better this season in midfield for the Tigers.

2011 should also bring the opportunity for the Tigers to move fellow Canadian Allysha Chapman back into the midfield after a season mainly spent at left-back last season. Ideally a defensive midfielder with no small degree of bite behind her tackles, Chapman moved out of team necessity to the backline and excelled thanks to great instincts and an explosive first step that allowed her to jet up the line to help join in attacks.

The last of LSU’s Canadian Legion of midfielders is Taryne Boudreau, a player who it feels like has been in Baton Rouge for ages. Like with Chapman, Boudreau’s international experience at the youth levels with Canada brought some much needed composure to the defense last year as she moved to center-back to help stabilize the defense. With the backline looking in better shape though, Boudreau will likely be up in midfield again this season where she can make best use of her sledgehammer like feet, the Canadian capable of ripping long distance shots from well outside the area.

Texan Nina Anderson brought much of the same inconsistency as many of the forwards, with not as much of the firepower, although she did also show signs of real potential and could figure in as a weapon in attack or midfield this season. Sophomore Emily Cancienne started every match as a rookie at either center-back or defensive midfielder and figures to find her way into the lineup somewhere on this Tiger team, though where could still be up in the air. Reserves Natalie Ieyoub and Danielle Murphy add depth to this unit. The team also adds some midfield recruits, including Alex Arlitt, a late bloomer out of Houston who showed well for Challenge SC in ECNL play, who could end up being a real gem for Lee and company.

With the offense struggling last season, it was really the defense that carried the Tigers towards any kind of success in 2010. LSU’s is gambling on youth on the backline this season it seems with Boudreau and Chapman moving into midfield after excelling on defense this season. That means it’ll likely be up to a very young group to hold down the fort this season. Getting center-back Calloway back from injury helps out immensely, but she and sophomores Shannon McLain, the likely starter at right-back, and Alex Ramsey, the probable starter on the left, will have to prove they can cut it as the go-to players on LSU’s defense.

Senior center-back Kellie Murphy will likely have to be the glue that holds those younger pieces together, and the Tigers don’t seem to have great strength in depth defensively if they don’t resort to shifting Boudreau and Chapman back into the rearguard this year. Redshirt freshman Molly Bear should provide depth after a transfer from Missouri, while Chapman and Boudreau can also fill in on the backline if need be.

In goal, Mo Isom entered 2010 as one of the league’s best keepers in the mind of some but ended it on the bench after one too many high profile errors early in the season opened up the door for first-year player Megan Kinneman. The Texan quickly stamped her authority on the position through conference play and looks to be the undisputed #1 for the Tigers heading into 2011. Her star rising after some inspired play last season, Kinneman could give LSU a great X-Factor this season considering so many of their conference rivals must break in new and untested keepers, though one figures that Isom will be chomping at the bit to get back in the mix if an opportunity arises.

Looking over LSU’s roster, it’s hard not to be struck by the amount of raw talent Lee and his staff has brought in over the past few seasons. But the key word there is ‘raw’, and the LSU boss likely knows that assembling that talent and getting them to perform at a high level are two entirely different challenges. With the sheer amount of potential volatility in the top half of the SEC this season though, LSU certainly has a chance to rocket up the table if Lee can coax some production out of his promising cache of attackers.

Given the likely unpredictable nature of the Tigers’ match-to-match form with so much riding on youth this year, they aren’t a side many will desire to face in knockout competition. Of course, that same unpredictability means the consistency for a title challenge is unlikely to be there this year, though the Tigers do stand a decent shot of making it back into the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence.

The fortunes of the TENNESSEE Lady Vols in 2010 were much like the fortunes of the program over the two prior seasons: mixed. Angela Kelly’s team were able to vault their way up to third in the standings after having to fight just to make the SEC Tournament a season before. But at the same time, Tennessee’s form in non-conference play was indifferent, the strong league finish meant only so much because of the overall weakness of the SEC in 2010, and the Lady Vols went down in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament. To the shock of very few, Tennessee spent its second straight season with no ticket to the Big Dance.

It’s been a swift fall from grace for what was once once one of the South’s premier programs. After ex-Tar Heel Kelly took charge before the 2000 season, the Lady Vols spent much of the year pillaging the SEC, taking home three straight league titles and three SEC Tournament titles from 2002-2005. Tennessee’s yearly battle for dominance in the league with Florida (and occasionally Auburn) was fascinating stuff, and the Vols proved they could hang with most teams on the national level as well, making five Sweet Sixteens in six years from 2002-2007. They weren’t quite on the level of the elite programs, but Tennessee was still a quality Top 20 team year in and year out.

But something happened to Tennessee at the end of the 2007 season that cut a deep wound into the psyche of the program. With a chance to win the SEC title with a win in Athens against Georgia, the Lady Vols were humiliated in a 3-0 defeat that could have been worse than the scoreline indicated. UT was then dumped out in swift fashion in the SEC Tournament. The Lady Vols did recover to make the Sweet Sixteen that season, but it’s never really been the same in the three years since the team’s title capitulation.

2008 was a veritable horror show, and Tennessee was fortunate to make a miracle run through the SEC Tournament to win the league’s auto bid, keeping their NCAA Tournament streak alive. There would be no such miracles in 2009 as Tennessee struggled to eighth in the league, achieved their lowest ever win total under Kelly, and finished under .500 for the second straight season. While it was hard to argue with the trophy haul Kelly had brought into Knoxville since taking over as coach, there still had to be some uneasiness going into 2010 at the general direction the program was headed.

Opening up with three matches at home, Tennessee won the two they had to but also dropped a tough result to a Maryland team in a loss that wouldn’t look that bad as the season went along. What did look bad was promptly losing four in a row and giving up fifteen goals in the process. Shipping seven to North Carolina wasn’t great by any means, but the more worrying showings were out west where the Lady Vols gave up four to Arizona State and three to Arizona in lopsided defeats.

By the time league play started, not many were sure what they were going to get with Tennessee. After two weeks and four SEC home matches, people still weren’t all that sure about the Lady Vols. They had beaten Arkansas and perennial bogey side Vanderbilt but had also drawn with LSU and lost to Kentucky. A winning weekend at the Mississippi schools set some minds at ease but the Lady Vols were no much for the cream of the crop in the league, losing on the road to Florida and South Carolina.

To their credit, Tennessee finished strong, with three straight wins to finish out the regular season, including the program’s first victory over Georgia in the regular season since 2006. But after another postseason failure, Tennessee’s third place league finish rang hollow. They had climbed the SEC ladder over the husks of former contenders and the cocoons of still developing challengers in the weakest season the league has had in many a year. The #75 finish in the final RPI was the worst for the program in a long, long time and was a blatant indicator for just how far the program had fallen in just a few years’ time.

Kelly might be in danger of falling victim to her own success in Knoxville as she enters the 2011 season with the Lady Vols. After setting such high standards for the better part of a decade, Tennessee has faltered in a bad way over the past few seasons, and you get the feeling that the former Tar Heel player needs to get her team back into contention for an NCAA Tournament spot sooner rather than later. It won’t be a cakewalk though as the team loses five starters from last season’s squad. On the one hand, the team returns most of its offense from last season. On the other hand, Tennessee’s offense in 2010 was largely a middle of the road effort.

One bright spot for the Lady Vols was the emergence of powerful forward Chelsea Hatcher as a true scoring threat. Up until last season, Hatcher’s reputation had always exceeded her production, and the senior had a point to prove. Eight goals and four assists was a fine haul, and her five goals in league play set her up nicely for a senior season that could approach double digits in goals. The rest of the Lady Vols’ offensive threats last season were adequate if not necessarily overwhelming threats.

Caroline Brown was an impact sub with three goals in mostly work off the bench in her freshman campaign and has been tipped for big things in the future by the coaching staff. Emily Dowd rounded out Tennessee’s secondary scoring threats with seven goals, although only two were in league play. Kelly will likely look for her newcomers to push some of the established offensive pieces and to replace the departed Anna Fisher. Georgia native Iyana Moore looks the likeliest of the new recruits to come in and make an impact on the offense, and Kelly will take all the help she can get in finding a reliable second banana for Hatcher.

In midfield, the leader looks to be junior Kylie Bono, who showed a bit of a flair for clutch scoring with three of her five goals being match winners. The midfield should be one of this Lady Vols’ team’s strengths with plenty of experienced campaigners returning for UT. Besides Bono, the team also returns Canadian junior Amy Harrison and senior set piece specialist Emily Shore to the fold as well. The set of reserves for Kelly’s team is also experienced, with versatile fireplug Tori Bailey able to cause problems in midfield or up top, with Finnish sophomore Sanna Saarinen and senior vet Lara Langworthy also capable off the bench.

The Tennessee defense is much harder hit by graduation. Gone are three-fourths of the Vols’ starting defense for much of the latter half of the campaign as Tanya Emerson, Grace Cuenin, and Melissa Speros all depart from one of the league’s better defensive units. The lone starting returnee is Chelsea Kephart, a senior who turned out to be a nice story after transferring from Georgia Southern. The step up in class looked to have little effect on Kephart who ended up holding down a starting spot on the defense for almost all of league play.

The million dollar question is who will join Kephart on that backline. A wide swath of part-time starters and once promising prospects like junior Ali Hall will be jostling for one of the open spots. Hall likely would’ve been a full-time starter on the backline last year, but the junior was shut down with a foot injury in the middle of the season. The Vols will probably rely on a pair of defensive recruits to help hold down the fort.

Canadian Alison Clarke is part of Tennessee’s recent push into developing a Canadian recruiting pipeline and is a massive signing, the Winnipeg native having been a prominent member of Canada’s U17 World Cup team this past year. Clarke could be joined on the starting backline by Ohio native Allie Sirna, another talented newcomer who should see major minutes right away. How long the new look defense takes to get up to speed could play a major role in how Tennessee’s season unravels.

The Vols also find themselves needing to break in a new starting goalkeeper after Molly Baird departs. It’s really anybody’s guess as to who will emerge in Knoxville between the pipes. Sophomore RB Wyatt is the only returnee with experience, all of thirteen minutes in goal last season. Fellow sophomore Jessica Rolfs also figures to be in the mix with recruits Julie Eckel and Hannah Steadman. I give the slightest of advantages to Eckel, but it looks to be a volatile situation in Knoxville that might change more than once during the season.

Make no mistake about it, 2011 is a critical season for the future of the Tennessee Lady Vols soccer program. Some have criticized Tennessee’s unapologetically direct style of play, and it’s very possible that the Lady Vols just haven’t evolved with the times and have been figured out by their SEC brethren and other sides around the country. Of course, nothing would shut those critics up like a title challenge and a return to the NCAA Tournament. More than validation, getting back to the Big Dance might go a long way with Kelly’s job security in Knoxville.

While there can be no doubting the long line of trophies to the Lady Vols’ name under Kelly, the luster of that silverware can only last for so long, and a third year without an NCAA Tournament berth could be problematic. But does Tennessee have the talent to get back to the Big Dance? The offense still runs a bit too much through Hatcher and still looks fairly average by any measure, though there are some intriguing youngsters in the mix. The defense faces a major rebuilding job, though the incoming talent does look promising.

It adds up to what could be another stressful season for the Orange and White. The Lady Vols don’t figure to be good enough to put up a title challenge but still could easily match or top last season’s third place finish in the ever shifting SEC. As has been the case recently, curing the team’s non-conference woes could be the key to a vital return to the NCAA Tournament.

Now that’s a little more like it. KENTUCKY Head Coach Jon Lipsitz might have been caught wondering just what he had gotten himself into during his first season in charge in Lexington in 2009. The Wildcats, under a coach who had made a name for himself with free-flowing, attacking football while the boss at Charlotte, were deadly boring in Lipsitz’s first year. Being shut out in twelve of nineteen matches, including a stretch of five straight matches without a goal told its own tale, as did the Wildcats’ paltry eleven goals on the season.

The painful 5-10-4 2009 campaign only seemed to confirm that there were not going to be any quick overnight fixes in Lexington of a program that had fallen upon hard times after its last trophy in 2006 when Kentucky managed to upset the odds and win the SEC Tournament. It was the last dying gasp of the good times under former Head Coach Warren Lipka as the Wildcats struggled to make the SEC Tournament the season after and then fell apart altogether a year after with a 5-12-2 mark that saw Kentucky out of the postseason and tied for tenth in the conference.

The broom promptly came out from the administration, and in came Lipsitz, who had turned Charlotte into a regional mid-major force through some beautiful football and shrewd recruiting. But the remnants of Lipka’s players and Lipsitz’s system were, for the most part, like driving round pegs into square holes, thus the abysmal first season in charge in 2009. With more of his players making their way into Lexington in 2010, most figured that Kentucky would be a better side. It was hard envisioning them being much worse.

The burning question was just how much difference a year could make and how much better UK would really be in 2010. The season certainly started out in promising fashion with a three match winning streak. The win over Indiana didn’t turn out to be as good as it might have looked like at the time, but the victory at a neutral site over Virginia Tech was a nice feather in the Wildcats’ cap. UK’s inconsistency would show itself for the first time though a week later as they dropped a rivalry game to Louisville on the road, 2-0. After three relatively easy non-conference wins at home, it was time for Lipsitz’s team to sink their teeth into SEC action.

Given a tough opening weekend at home against Florida and South Carolina, Kentucky fell short, losing to the Gators, 2-0, before being drubbed by South Carolina, 5-1. A four match road swing put Kentucky deeper into the mire after just one win, a 1-0 triumph over Tennessee. If UK wanted to get back into the postseason, they’d need to rally in a big way over the final five regular season matches. Luckily for them, the schedule clearly eased up towards the end of the season with four home matches and some of the league’s lesser teams on the docket.

3-1-1 to finish was a great finishing kick, and needing two wins in their final two matches to assure themselves of postseason qualification, Kentucky responded emphatically with a 5-1 win over Mississippi State and a 6-1 throttling of Vanderbilt on the final day to finish seventh in the league. In Orange Beach, Kentucky battled valiantly against South Carolina, coming back from going behind early to force matters to extra time. The stalemate lingered into penalties where the Wildcats saw their season come to a close. A return to the postseason and a third place finish in the league in scoring were certainly signs that progress was being made in Lexington through Lipsitz’s second year, but from this point, nothing less than a return to the NCAA Tournament is likely to satiate the demanding fanbase of Big Blue Nation.

That progress is set to hit a much higher gear over the next two seasons in Lexington thanks to some of Lipsitz’s recruiting efforts. The Kentucky head coach captured some truly talented players that could have easily played at a higher level while at Charlotte, and from some of the names coming into Lexington this year and next, looks to be doing much of the same early in his tenure with the Wildcats. It appears the focus from this year’s recruiting class is on offense, with some serious firepower making its way to Lexington this year.

Not that UK is threadbare in that department through some of their returnees. Lipsitz dipped into the transfer market to cure some of his side’s woes offensively last year, and the gambles paid off handsomely. Louisville transfer Kelsey Hunyadi crossed the deep divide in the state of Kentucky, trading in red for blue and was well worth the wait after being forced to redshirt in 2009. Capable of leading the line or stationed a little deeper behind the forwards, Hunyadi was often the spark that made the Wildcats go in attack last season. Eight goals and three assists was an impressive return for the senior who undoubtedly spent some of the season trying to knock the rust off after a redshirt season. Hunyadi had four goals and three assists in SEC action last season despite missing three matches, and her absence from the lineup was patently noticeable last year.

Fellow transfer Natalie Horner was also forced into a redshirt in 2009 after moving from Michigan after a Big Ten All-Freshman season and was another big contributor for the Wildcats in 2010. One of only three players on Kentucky to start every match in 2010, Horner delivered five goals and seven assists, leading the team in the latter category. Additionally, Horner’s six assists in league play tied her for second in the SEC. The pair of transfers should be even better in 2011 after shaking the aforementioned rust off from the year on the sidelines.

If that wasn’t enough offense from the returnees, UK also brings back sophomore Caitlin Landis, a member of the All-SEC Freshman Team and a feisty presence up front for Lipsitz’s Wildcats. After seven goals in her freshman campaign, including three game winners to lead the team, Landis has only begun to scratch the surface of her potential and will be looking to get into double digits in 2011. Another returnee on offense to keep an eye on is Taylor Parker, who came through with two goals and five assists in her freshman season.

That offense alone would be enough to make Kentucky a threat to SEC defenses this season, but the Wildcats add an absolute treasure trove of attacking riches through 2011’s recruiting class. The crown jewel for Lipsitz’s class is U.S. U20 international Arin Gilliland. A stunning get for a program allegedly in rebuilding mode, Gilliland is an attacker with the potential to transform a program through her vast skill. Despite UK returning a fair amount of attacking talent, Gilliland should find herself in the starting lineup for the Cats sooner rather than later if everything goes to plan. Just not at forward perhaps. Gilliland’s been used as a full-back in the U.S. U20 team as of late, and Lipsitz has her reprising that role early in the season to counteract some of the team’s injuries at the moment. It goes without saying that the rookie is good at getting forward and could still be shifted around as the season goes on.

Also in the mix for some serious minutes as a freshman is Molly Huber after an impressive club career with Midwestern club power St. Louis Scott Gallagher. Transfers worked out pretty well for Lipsitz last season, and the club adds another this year, with Erin Simon coming in after featuring as a reserve in ten matches with Rutgers last year but faces a crowded battle for playing time. With such a wide array of attacking talent, Lipsitz certainly won’t face any problems this year with competition for places in attack.

With so few players listed on the roster as midfielders, not helped by Natalie Starr’s departure after starting much of the SEC season last year, it’s safe to say Lipsitz might cram some of that attacking talent into the middle of the park to add even more punch to this Kentucky lineup. One of the team’s only listed midfielders, junior Alyssa Telang, was second on the team with six assists, including four in SEC action, and and figures to have be one of the team’s midfield stalwarts this year. Sophomore Danielle Krohn could also feature after hammering down a starting spot as SEC play heated up last lear. When you factor in all the attacking talent both up front and potentially in midfield, you can certainly say that Kentucky is spoilt for choice going forward.

Lipsitz probably wishes he had the same selection dilemmas facing him on defense. The Wildcats’ defense was on the leaky side last season as could be evidenced by the fact that they only kept one clean sheet in league play in 2010. It remains to be seen whether this unit is markedly better in 2011 as well, considering the Cats lose their best defender in Laura Novikoff. A towering but hardly prolific center forward for three seasons, Novikoff was converted into an uncompromising center-back for her senior season and responded wonderfully, turning into a more than capable defender for the Wildcats. Ironically, Novikoff also turned in a fine offensive season for a back, adding five goals to Kentucky’s cause. Cruelly, just as she had found her niche, Novikoff graduates, leaving a hole to fill in the Kentucky backline.

Making matters worse, senior captain Jenna Goblirsch was likely lost for the season with a serious knee injury in preseason, further raising questions about the defense. Sophomore Ashley VanLandingham, who was impressive in the Spring, is likely the pick to help lead the Kentucky defense forward. Another constant could be Kacie Kumar who battled for a starting spot all season and ended up starting ten SEC games for the club. A clutch of last year’s reserves, including Brooke Keyes, Kiondra McGee, and Kirsten Robinson will all be vying for a spot alongside VanLandingham and Kumar on the starting backline as well. Gilliland is also playing defense to help the Wildcats out at the start of the season, while converted forward Emma Brown is also being pressed into duty in defense this season.

There’s also the not-so-small matter of who’s going to be in goal for the Wildcats after the graduation of Sydney Hiance, at times erratic, but also a four year starter for UK. Lipsitz says that sophomore Kayla King made big strides in the Spring, but that might not be enough to hold off incoming challengers Kayla Price and Taylor Mogel. Price looks likeliest to be in goal come the season opener, but it’s not set in stone, and there’s no guarantee that more than one keeper won’t see significant minutes in goal for Big Blue this season.

With plenty of young attacking talent in Lexington this season, Kentucky figures to be one of the most exciting squads in the SEC to watch this season. But that might also be in part due to a defense that has some way to go to prove they can hold their own against the league’s top offenses. Expect the Wildcats to once again station themselves in mid-table in the SEC, perhaps moving up a few spots if some of their young stars begin to reach their vast potential. Kentucky figures to be better late than early with so much youth in play, and if all the pieces gel by the end of the season, they could certainly flirt with an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament as well.

There’s cruel and there’s the fate that befell ALABAMA at the end of the regular season last year. The Crimson Tide were one of a gaggle of SEC teams clawing for one of the last spots in the SEC Tournament on a wild and chaotic final day of the regular season. The permutations were endless, but the Crimson Tide badly needed a win at deadly rivals Auburn, a team that has had Bama’s number over recent years. That a win could possibly knock the Tigers out of the SEC Tournament picture only made things sweeter for Head Coach Todd Bramble’s side. The Tide looked to be on their way to a shock win as well after Victoria Frederick’s early first half goal held up deep into the second half despite an unyielding wave of pressure from the home side.

But with less than a minute to play, Alabama was called for a foul, letting Tiger superstar Katy Frierson step up and drive in a free kick that Julie King got a head to, equalizing and stunning the Crimson Tide faithful. The Tigers would score in the first half of extra time to bring Bama’s season to a crushing end. It was a dramatic and devastating setback to the progress being made in Tuscaloosa.

Bramble inherited a team that had largely been forgotten about in the SEC after the eccentric Don Staley had turned the Tide into a reputable team in the formative years of the league as a soccer conference. But when the rest of the SEC caught up and started moving forward, Alabama spun its wheels until a change was made in 2008 with Bramble coming in from Clemson. Most thought it a curious move, perhaps even a lateral one career-wise for the ex-Tiger boss, but in any event, the shakeup at the top had an immediate effect as Alabama qualified for its first SEC Tournament since 2004 in Bramble’s first year at the helm.

But second season syndrome hit hard in 2009 with Bama sliding back to a 6-11-1 mark and out of the SEC Tournament once again. It left Tide supporters hoping that Bramble could work his magic again in 2010 and get the club back on the right track, preferably with a trip back to the postseason. Much of non-conference play was an erratic adventure for Alabama. The team managed wins against the likes of Texas Tech and Samford but also were blown out by Memphis and bizarrely, Furman, at home. The Tide may have been missing first choice keeper Justine Bernier through international duty, but still, there’s no way an SEC team should be losing to SoCon makeweights like the Paladins.

The Tide put that behind them though as they got out to a stormer in league action, sweeping their opening weekend against the Mississippi schools before collecting four points on the road against LSU and Arkansas. Back at home, the Tide fought hard for a 1-1 draw against league champs Florida, making a trip back to Orange Beach look more and more inevitable as Bama stood at 3-0-2 just a little under halfway into the SEC season.

But then, the bottom dropped out on Bramble’s squad. The offense stopped scoring abruptly, and the defense began leaking goals left and right. The Tide would lose their next five in a row, making it a minor miracle that they were still in mathematic contention for a spot in the SEC Tournament going into the regular season finale. The manner of the end of the season in Auburn was cruel, but it was hard to argue that a team that had lost its final six in league play deserved to see their season go on in Orange Beach.

It’s safe to say Mal Moore and the higher ups in Tuscaloosa aren’t paying for finishes outside the postseason, meaning it could be a crossroads season for Head Coach Todd Bramble’s stewardship over the Tide. After two seasons outside of the SEC’s Top Eight, the pressure will be on for a move up the table and back to Orange Beach if Bramble is to feel secure in his job after the 2011 campaign. If Alabama are to achieve that goal, it’ll likely be through defense instead of offense as the club loses its top three scorers from 2010, robbing the Tide of a massive chunk of its offense from last season. Granted, that offense was still second worst in the league last yet, but it leaves an absolute bare minimum of firepower behind from the returnees at the start of the season.

The strike partnership of Brooke Rogers and Victoria Frederick combined for eleven goals and six assists (all Frederick’s) last year, with Frederick serving as a dual purpose weapon in league play with three goals and five assists in league action to pace the team in league points. Also gone is midfielder Rosaly Petriello, whose four goals were a bit deceiving in that two of them came from the penalty spot, but they all count nonetheless.

The returnees for Bama combined for five goals total and three goals in league play, which should send alarm bells ringing everywhere in Tuscaloosa. The most promising returnee is Lindsey Sillers, a junior who nabbed a pair of those goals last season and who scored twice in SEC play last year. She was a pure substitute though, with thirteen appearances off the bench and no starts, so it remains to be seen if she can make the step up into a starting role. Also back is Kendall Khanna, who started thirteen matches as a freshman last year but only scored once, and Ariel Armijo, another super sub who had goals against Memphis and Texas Tech.

More than likely though, Bramble will be desperately hoping that some of his newcomers can step right into a starting role right off the bat. Birmingham United teammates Janea Simpson and Laura Lee Smith come into Tuscaloosa with a fair amount of credentials at club level, but the SEC is a whole different animal, meaning the Tide could be in deep trouble if they don’t acclimate quickly. Smith has the potential to be a great forward for the Tide though, having won the state of Mississippi’s Gatorade State Player of the Year honor for two years running. Simpson could find a quick home on the left side of attack and could also be a big factor early on in her Alabama career.

Bramble also busted out an “August Surprise” by bringing in Dutch freshman Pia Rijsdijk. Rijsdijk is a Holland U19 international with eight goals in twelve caps for the youth setup and played her club ball at ADO Den Haag. She may be a real wild card, but if she can acclimate quickly, Rijsdijk could become a big part of the future in Tuscaloosa.

At least Alabama should be able to count on the continued growth of sophomore midfielder Molly Atherton, one of the league’s best young midfielders in her first season with the Tide in 2010. Atherton made waves in her first season with the Tide and has been tipped as a star for the future for Alabama. There doesn’t seem to be a great amount of depth for the Tide in midfield, but there is a decent amount of starting experience.

Kaitlyn Smith has started every match for the Tide in her career, and the junior has the versatility to play in multiple positions, including in defense. She may be used further up the pitch this year though by Bramble. Senior Shannon Lathrop has nineteen starts in three years and could feature again this season but is far from a real offensive threat, with only one goal in three seasons. Also in the mix for a starting spot should be junior Josie Rix, who missed a fair amount of time with injury last year, and Tia King, one of the team’s top subs the past two season.

But odds are, if Alabama’s going to have a successful 2011 season, it’s going to come on the back of their potentially formidable defense. The core of the backline should return intact, but the real star of the show stands in goal. Senior Justine Bernier earned First Team All-SEC honors last season and has been a fixture for Canada at the youth international level for many years now. Truthfully, her developmental curve may have plateaued a bit, potentially making it a fight for a spot on the full Canadian WNT, but she’s arguably the class of the SEC’s goalkeepers and gives Bama a major advantage between the pipes with so much uncertainty in goal for many conference rivals this season. Fighting for the backup role will be sophomore Shanna Brooks, who started three matches last season, and true freshman Lauren Davis, a massive 6’2″ prospect out of Louisiana.

The defense as a whole was just a touch behind the league leaders and could move up into the realm of one of the league’s best given that there are no expected serious losses going into 2011. The addition of K.K. Duffy, a transfer from Clemson, last season helped matters a lot, and Duffy was a workhorse in defense for Bama on the Capstone last season at center-back, starting all eighteen matches and leading the team in minutes played. Duffy is just one of many experienced returners, including full-back Ashley Willis, another who started every match, and fifth-year senior Carly Mygrants, who racked up eleven starts after returning from a 2009 injury. Upperclassmen Megan Petersen and Veronica Wolfkeil also saw their fair share of starting minutes and will also be in the frame for starting minutes this year in a deep, experienced group.

It is that defense on which Alabama and Bramble are pinning their hopes for the 2011 season. That unit figures to be one of the league’s best, and Bernier could prove worth her weight in gold come the end of the season. But it’s hard for one dimensional teams to advance to postseason play, and the major questions up front for Alabama likely means another scrap to the end for a trip to Orange Beach.

These days in Nashville, it’s difficult not to look at VANDERBILT‘s soccer program as something of a sinking ship, a relic of an era long gone by. The Commodores were a terror in the early days of the SEC under Ken McDonald, doing the double in consecutive seasons in 1993 and 1994 while also qualifying for five straight NCAA Tournaments and reaching the second round of the competition in four of those tournaments.

But once the machines in Knoxville and Gainesville started rolling, and Tennessee and Florida started duopolizing the SEC silverware, Vanderbilt began to slowly dip into the mire. Ronnie Woodard took control before the 2001 season and slowly got the Commodores competitive in the SEC again. After the ignominy of not qualifying for the SEC Tournament in 2002, Vanderbilt quickly rose into the upper echelons of mid-table, peaking with a brilliant 16-3-3 season in 2005. But Woodard couldn’t guide her side into the SEC elite, as the Dores couldn’t rise above fourth place in the league and failed to reach the SEC Tournament finals in either 2005 or 2006, the two times in the decade that Vandy reached the NCAA Tournament.

Success on the biggest stage evaded the Commodores though as Woodard’s side went down on penalties in the first round on both occasions. Instead of building towards bigger and better things after those two successful seasons, the bottom promptly dropped out in Nashville. Vandy promptly failed to qualify for the next two SEC Tournaments, bottoming out in 2007 with a 6-10-3 effort. 2009 was a vast improvement for the Dores though as they fought their way back into the NCAA Tournament and into at-large bid contention before being struck down by LSU in the first round of the SEC Tournament to end those hopes.

With an experienced and talented squad coming back for 2010, the thought was that this could finally be the year that Woodard spurred Vandy on towards a return to the Big Dance. Non-conference play was a mixed bag for Vanderbilt last season. The Dores generally beat everyone they were supposed to but couldn’t buy a result against one of the handful of quality teams they ran up against. Losses to teams that were near the bubble picture like Minnesota and Virginia Tech were not good omens going forward for Woodard’s side. A draw in the opening SEC fixture against South Carolina brought positive momentum to the table that was squandered over the next few fixtures, as the tie was instead the start of a four match winless streak that stuck Vandy into a big hole right off the bat in SEC play.

To their credit, Vanderbilt clawed their way out of that hole with a five match unbeaten run, featuring four wins, three of which were on the road. The Dores looked set to be headed back into mid-table with another run in Orange Beach a possibility. They had seemingly done the hard work with doable matches with Ole Miss and Kentucky left on the schedule. Five minutes into the match against the former and Vandy had a two goal lead. And then things went horribly wrong. The Commodores blew that 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 at home, meaning they’d have to win at Kentucky to ensure themselves of a postseason spot. Vanderbilt lost.

They lost. Badly. They lost 6-1 in one of the most important matches in recent program history but were miraculously bailed out by results elsewhere, giving Woodard’s side the eighth and final seed in the SEC Tournament. To their credit, Vanderbilt went down on their shield, falling to league champs Florida in a thrilling 5-3 loss, but it still couldn’t hide the fact that the Dores had finished 8-10-2 in a season that was supposed to bring about an NCAA Tournament challenge or that Woodard saw her Vandy program finish outside the RPI Top 100 in three of the past four seasons.

Then, with Woodard set to enter the 2011 campaign almost assuredly on one of the hottest seats in D1, the long-time boss suddenly retired from her post with just days to go before preseason commenced. With no time to realistically search for a replacement, Vanderbilt promoted Derek Greene to the role of interim head coach. Greene has been a #2 at a couple of stops in the SEC but is untested in the hot seat and does not inherit an easy situation.

It’s been far from a sedate offseason in Nashville either. The news that the tortured relationship between the club and Canadian international midfielder Chelsea Stewart has finally ended was hardly surprising, with the news coming in Spring that the player was leaving Vanderbilt for the sunnier climes of Westwood and B.J. Snow’s UCLA side. Once thought of as the future crown jewel in former Head Coach Ronnie Woodard’s plans for the Commodores, Stewart instead became a cautionary tale.

The once budding star missed 2008 while on international duty before coming back to feature prominently in Vanderbilt’s 2009 campaign. But she was nowhere to be found during the Dores’ struggles last season, and after the parting of ways, both sides must have wondered if, three years later, the entire complicated affair had benefitted either party in the least. The timing of the separation certainly couldn’t be much worse for Greene or Vanderbilt, who can add Stewart’s name to a litany of losses from last season’s squad.

The biggest departures are that of the Kinsella twins, Molly and Megan, who served as the heartbeat of the Commodores over the past four seasons. It was the former’s struggle with injuries for parts of last season that blighted Vanderbilt’s form during certain stretches of the season. Greene may have envisioned Stewart as the future of the program at one time, but there’s no doubting that the Kinsella’s were the face of the program for the past four years. If that wasn’t enough to overcome, Vandy also loses its leading goalscorer, Nicole Adams. Adams saved her best form for SEC play, striking four times for the Dores.

All of that departing offense means the team returns players who scored all of two goals in league play last year. Senior Candace West has been temperamental and inconsistent in her time in Nashville and likely has to put it all together at the last time of asking if Vanderbilt is to contend for the postseason. The only other player that saw anything approaching major minutes last season was sophomore Duggan Hahn, but she only started two matches and only added two assists to Vandy’s cause.

Replacing the holes left in midfield could be equally tricky. There’s a little more experience in this area of the park, though not a great deal. The most seasoned campaigner looks to be junior CJ Rhoades, who has started most of the past two seasons for the Dores. Rhoades tallied three goals last season, though it’d be a stretch to call her an offensive weapon. Fellow junior Dana Schwartz is also a prime contender for a starting role after three goals and two assists in nine starts last year. Key reserve Elizabeth Lillie could also be in line for some extra minutes, while there has to be hope that senior Emily Grant can get more involved after only featuring intermittently off the bench last year.

Kirsten Evans looks likeliest of the incoming freshman to make an impact in attack, though she could also be used in defense, while Florida State transfer Abby Carr could be a real wild card after some struggles through injuries with the Noles. Team Boca’s Ashley Oswald could slot right into a starting spot in the middle of the park, and her high workrate could make her a fan favorite around Nashville for years to come.

While the attack looks a bit shaky, the defense only marginally looks in better shape. While they do return all but one starting defender, this was the same team that shipped twenty goals in eleven league matches plus the SEC Tournament match with Florida. Some would point at the fact that fourteen of those twenty goals came in Vandy’s last three matches, while others would point at the fact that they gave up fourteen goals in three matches, matches that were all vitally important to their season.

This group could improve though, with sophomore Claire Romaine having lived up to her advance billing last season in defense, the North Carolina product looking like the leader for this unit for years to come. The team also returns Bridget Lohmuller and Kate Goldin from last year’s starting defense, meaning that this group should be the most experienced unit on the team by some margin. The team could also benefit from the return of Amanda Essay, after a redshirt season following just one start last year after Essay started twelve times as a freshman in 2009.

Newcomers Cherrelle Jarrett and Taylor Richardson are arguably the crown jewels in Greene’s 2011 recruiting class. Jarrett was a fine center-back at club level but is a little undersized for that (5’4″) at this level, meaning she may be shifted wide for Vandy in the coming years. Richardson’s a natural full-back from Tampa who has a chance to become an immediate factor for the Dores and is perhaps the team’s best chance for getting a freshman on the SEC All-Freshman Team this season.

That still doesn’t solve the problem in goal, specifically, the fact that Vanderbilt’s two keepers haven’t played a single minute of college ball. Redshirt freshman Alexa Levick and true freshman Brittanie Barbero will duke it out for the starting job. I’d give the edge to Levick, but it’s anybody’s guess as to who’ll prevail in that goalkeeping battle that could last the length of the season.

The vibes aren’t exactly positive coming out of Nashville right now. A senior laden team underachieved last season, and Stewart bailing out is telling, even if she didn’t contribute much to the Vanderbilt cause in her stay in Nashville. Being saddled with a head coach with an “interim” tag could also damage the team’s recruiting in the short-term, which could have deeper consequences down the line. With little in the way of proven offense, questions in goal, and a distinct lack of a program identity, it could be a real struggle for the Dores to breach the Top Eight of the SEC and make it back to the postseason.

The winds of change touch all corners of the globe eventually, and OLE MISS felt that change firsthand after years of calm in Oxford. The news that longtime coach Steve Holeman had jumped ship and taken the head job at conference rival was especially jarring since Holeman had just led the program to their best season in ages, coming within a whisker of a shock SEC title and getting back to the NCAA Tournament when the pressure had been squarely on his shoulders coming into the 2009 campaign. But with Holeman jetting off to greener pastures, Ole Miss turned to Texas assistant Matt Mott.

Mott was thrust into a rather difficult situation, taking over in the Spring with basically no time to bring in any of his players before the 2010 season. Quickly into the new campaign it became apparent that this Rebels team was a far cry from 2009’s title contenders. The team had lost some key contributors in between seasons, including Sky Blue FC’s Danielle Johnson, and many of the replacements drafted in by the previous regime were more along the lines of long-term projects than immediate contributors.

One of the team’s best forwards, Kelsey Breathitt, was lost for the season early on with a serious knee injury. Goalkeeper Alley Ronaldi, so solid the past few seasons suddenly suffered a massive loss of confidence and eventually lost her starting job. In short, Ole Miss was in tough. The Rebels slumped badly after a season opening win over Middle Tennessee State, going winless in their next four with a revealing draw against Western Kentucky, followed by a demoralizing defeat to UAB, both at home. They stood little chance against Texas Tech and Santa Clara but used easier opposition back at home to rebuild some confidence before SEC play started in earnest.

The Rebels were victims of a horrific scheduling draw, playing their first four on the road. It was hardly the recipe for success for a team still finding its feet and Ole Miss was only able to win one of the four, a battling win in dreary conditions against Auburn. A return home wasn’t the cure for Mississippi’s ills either, as the Rebels winless stretch hit six matches, although Ole Miss did battle their former boss and his new squad to a standstill, holding Georgia to a scoreless draw. Not so scoreless was the following week’s 4-4 thriller against Arkansas.

When Ole Miss looked dead and buried for the postseason though, the Rebels sparked back into life with wins over Kentucky and Vanderbilt, meaning all they had to do to qualify for the SEC Tournament was beat lowly Mississippi State in Starkville. They lost. It was a depressing end to a run that had seen Ole Miss qualify for every SEC Tournament since 1997.

Mott and Rebels supporters will be hoping that 2010 was a case of Ole Miss taking a step backwards to take two steps forward. Inexperience certainly won’t be an excuse for Ole Miss in 2011 as most of the entire roster of major contributors return, though the team does lose senior forward Taylor Cunningham. Even with the familiar faces returning to Oxford, those returnees will have to combine with the newcomers to tighten up a defense that was the league’s worst outside of their state rivals in Starkville. Ole Miss only kept six clean sheets in twenty matches last year and conceded two or more goals in eleven matches in 2010. It was a far cry from the days of Holeman’s tough defending teams, and few of the Rebel defenders came through 2010 with their reputations enhanced.

Junior Alex Hildal was the exception though, turning into a two-way threat who managed six goals on the year including a priceless hat trick on the road at Vanderbilt to help the Rebels to victory. That’s no guarantee that Hildal will be on the backline again this year though. Ole Miss is also in need of some punch up front, and Hildal’s offensive skills could come in particular handy up the pitch, despite a fine season in defense last year. Meredith Snow was not quite as lucky, and the senior will be looking to come back with a vengeance after not living up to her preseason All-SEC billing.

Fellow senior Kendyl Mygatt made a successful transition from attack to defense last year and is odds on to reprise her role in defense this year after leading the Rebels in minutes last season. The Rebels made good use of North Texas transfer Chelsea Heimann, the junior making twelve starts last year, and she could improve yet with another season to settle in Oxford. Taylor Cunningham’s younger sister, Maddie, will also be in the running for a starting spot after forcing her way into the lineup late in the year. UAB transfer Emily Sinovich could also see significant minutes for the Rebels this season. This area, like many others for the Rebels, looks short on depth though and can’t afford injuries or any slumps in form.

The situation in goal hardly helped matters of defense either last year. Alley Ronaldi entered 2010 as one of the SEC’s best keepers but exited as a backup after losing her job after some ineffectual performances early in the season. True freshman Sarah Story took over and looked every bit her age in goal, brilliant and maddening in equal measure as the defense in front of her forced her into a lot of saves in some matches. Despite showing some promise last year, Story transferred out of the program in the offseason, leaving questions in between the pipes again. Californian Kelly McCormick comes from club powerhouse So Cal Blues and could immediately step into the lineup, though Ronaldi has shown the ability to be a fine SEC goalkeeper in the past and could well rebound this year if she wins the job and regains her confidence.

The Rebels’ offense wasn’t quite as bad as their defense last year but still has much room for improvement. The constant theme among the attackers is potential waiting to be tapped. Erin Emerson and Mandy McCalla both showed signs of turning into dangerous threats going forward last year, with McCalla especially impressing pulling the midfield strings with four goals and six assists. McCalla came in and started every game for Ole Miss as a freshman and could be a critical building block for the future in Oxford.

She ended up second on the team in points to senior Dylan Jordan who was in fine form in non-conference play with six goals and an assist, including three match winners. Jordan cooled off considerably in league play though, only managing one goal and one assist, though that one goal was a massive won, the game winner against Auburn on the road. Oklahoma transfer Emily Reid has been tipped to impress in her first season in Oxford and could well hammer out a spot in the lineup pretty early for Mott’s team.

The team should also be boosted by the return of junior Kelsey Breathitt who was lost to injury early in the season and redshirted, a season removed from scoring five goals and adding four assists. If she can return to form, Breathitt could be a huge addition back to this squad. Also back are senior Jenna Strother, who started every match for the team last season, and Abbie Curran, who was well on her way to doing the same before being injured against Florida. McCalla and Jordan should both have a chance to impress in the midfield once again and make this a relative area of strength for the Rebels.

With the team still searching for options up front, Mott experimented with Hildal up front with Emerson in the Spring, a look that could be tantalizing in the Fall, even if it risks destabilizing the defense further. Emerson was another immediate hit for the Rebels, starting all twenty games and putting three goals and three assists on her ledger, including two strikes against Arkansas.

The biggest news though is the shock addition of Brazilian U20 international Rafaelle Souza to the attacking lineup. Rafaelle has scored some blinding goals in FIFA Youth World Cup tournaments and is simply a cut far above of most newcomers SEC teams usually get to bring in. The exciting import has amazing free kick ability and could be one of the nation’s top newcomers if she can get to grips quickly with the culture shock and physical play of the SEC.

Mott will be looking for every advantage he can get in his second year as he tries to reverse last year’s slide. Taking over so late in the offseason last year set the new regime’s recruiting efforts back, and the incoming class shows the effects of that, with much of the same as last year’s class, i.e. a lot of long-term projects. Attrition has also taken a toll with a lot of players moving on in between Mott’s first and second season in charge, though the effort to replace that depth with some transfers has gone fairly well. There’s a handful of really intriguing and talented players, including the Brazilian, Rafaelle, but there are also still holes and a lack of depth surrounding the squad. Ole Miss might dazzle at times this year, but a battle for one of the last spots in the SEC Tournament is still the likely end product in Oxford this year.

Second season syndrome bit hard for ARKANSAS and Head Coach Erin Aubry in 2010. The Lady Razorbacks had shown a few flashes of potential in Aubry’s first season with the club with wins at Michigan, Florida International, and Vanderbilt. But an encore in 2010 wasn’t in the cards, as Aubry learned the hard way that it’s not easy to win in Fayetteville. Actually, that’s understating the point a bit. The Lady Razorbacks celebrated an unhappy anniversary last season, as 2010 marked a full decade out of the postseason for an Arkansas side that hasn’t seen the SEC Tournament since 2000, easily the worst streak in the conference.

Fayetteville has taken on the role of the league’s coaching graveyard, having claimed no fewer than six victims in program history. And considering the list of past Arkansas coaches includes such figures as Marcia McDermott (still the only Lady Razorbacks coach with a record over .500 at the school) and current Illinois coach Janet Rayfield, one has to wonder if there’s something in the water down Fayetteville way rather than just a curse of bad coach selection.

There wasn’t much mystery in Arkansas’ 2010 though: they just weren’t very good. An early win over Miami (FL) provided a glimmer of hope going forward, but the Lady Razorbacks promptly followed that upset with a defeat to Florida Gulf Coast a few days later. That would star a horrendous run of just one win in ten. Arkansas did manage to go on the road and get a creditable draw with Georgia, but that was in nearly impossible conditions with a torrential downpour hammering the Athens area on that Sunday afternoon.

A clutch 2-0 win over Kentucky led to a three match unbeaten streak that also contained a bonkers 4-4 draw with Ole Miss that gave the Lady Razorbacks a slight chance at getting back to the postseason. Against three of the league’s heavy hitters to finish up with though that was always going to be a challenge, and Arkansas ended the season with three straight defeats. Aubry’s team finished on eight points in eleventh place, some six points out of the postseason places in the SEC.

If Aubry is to buck history and get Arkansas back to the SEC Tournament for the first time in a decade, it’s going to be with a massively remade squad. Aubry and Arkansas bid farewell to ten seniors, including seven starters. The departed Razorbacks include some players who didn’t feature prominently last year when their presence could have made a huge difference to the team.

Kelly O’Connor was reduced to a bit role off the bench after having previously looked like potentially one of the SEC’s impact players before an ACL injury in her freshman season. Towering defender Lauren Hallauer had been impressive in two seasons after transferring in from Ohio State but only managed three matches in 2010. The biggest loss though is midfielder Kelsey Allison who had a breakthrough season in her second year in Fayetteville after transferring from Oklahoma. Allison’s fourteen points in league play put her in third place in the SEC, an impressive feat considering some of the strikers in the league.

Arkansas’s offense, actually one of the best in the league statistically, gets gutted, as besides Allison, the team loses forwards Ally Atkins, Erin Moskos, and Rachel Carlson in addition to midfielders Camille Flores and Beth McVean. As far as returning offense goes, junior Allie Chandler figures to be the one to watch up front for the Lady Razorbacks. Chandler was second on the team in goals scored with four, three of which occurred in league play, despite missing three SEC matches. Chandler was also the team leader in match winning goals with two and could have added to her total had she not missed the last three matches of the season through injury.

Other than her though, it’s slim pickings from the returnees, meaning Aubry will likely have to lean heavily on a massive incoming class of fifteen newcomers. The most likely to contribute up front early are little speedster Nmachi JeriAnn Okoro and towering target forward Allie Tripp, who could, together, make an intriguing ‘little and large’ combo should Aubry lean that way. Okoro made waves with her Sting Dallas club in ECNL play and could be a major coup for Arkansas down the road. Tripp’s another Texas product from a strong club team, having featured on the FC Dallas team and having the physicality thanks to her height to help her excel in an often rough and tumble league. Returnees hoping to see major minutes include Yvonne DesJarlais and Bethany Labac, who both saw lots of time off the bench last year.

Energetic midfield recruit Haley Pratt looks like the best bet to fortify that area of the field after the club’s heavy losses in the center of the park. Pratt’s one of four Sting Dallas prospects and looks like one of the most likely to start considering Arkansas doesn’t really bring back much in midfield this year. Jessie Givens looks like the surest thing returning, and she’s only a sophomore, though she did start fourteen matches last year. Taylor Green could be in line for more minutes as a sophomore as well after being one of the team’s most dependable reserves last year. There may also be an increased role for junior Andrea Carlson, sister of departed senior Rachel, with the younger Carlson having seen action in twelve matches after transferring from Oklahoma State. True and redshirt freshmen will likely play a major role though with tons of uncertainty in Arkansas’ midfield coming into the new seaosn.

In reality though, it wasn’t the offense that stung Arkansas last year. The Lady Razorback defense was far too forgiving in 2010, conceding two or more goals in seven of their eleven league matches, a number that almost guarantees a spot in the bottom tier of the conference. This area might have a chance to be better though, as most of the players from last year’s unit are back a year wiser for their troubles. One who won’t be is the team’s best attacking threat out of the backline, Laurel Pastor, who finished second on the team in points with eleven and led the team in assists.

Much may depend on the continued development of sophomore Melanie Foncham, pulled off the scrap heap at Texas by Aubry and turned into a creditable SEC defender. Foncham started every match for Arkansas last year and will likely be counted on to help lead a defense that’s short on depth and experience. One of the few upperclassmen on the backline, senior Kailey Anders should also have a part to play after starting every match for the Lady Razorbacks the past two seasons. Sophomore Jenn Fryrear is also likely to be present in the first XI once again after starting fifteen matches in defense as a rookie last year. While that trio boasts a fair amount of experience, depth is nearly non-existent and could create real trouble if injuries or a loss of form hits during the season. While the incoming group is heavy on defensive numbers, their ability to get it done at this level remains in question.

One incoming player whose ability is likely not to be questioned is goalkeeper Emily Lillard, a rangy keeper with experience in the U.S. youth international pool at the U18 level. Lillard should be an upgrade over the steady but average Britni Williams in goal. Lillard isn’t going to get handed anything though. Challenge SC keeper Kelly Roliard is also a promising keeper and should at the very least provide competition in training for Lillard, along with returning veterans Brittany Hudson and Kendal Winston.

With some intriguing pieces coming into Fayetteville from Aubry’s latest recruiting class, there are elements of a competitive team in the SEC on hand. Just not in 2011. The influx of new, unproven talent combined with sweeping change in the starting lineup will probably equal more of the same for the Lady Razorbacks this season, although they still could claim a bigger scalp or two if some of the young kids pan out.

You get the feeling that Robert Stack should be narrating this preview of MISSISSIPPI STATE, because it’s an Unsolved Mystery as to how there hasn’t been a regime change in Starkville after years and years of humiliating futility. These Bulldogs have only made the postseason twice despite having played SEC soccer since 1995. Their next closest conference competitor in futility has six appearances. Mississippi State have never won a postseason game. Ever.

The Bulldogs enter this season with an all-time SEC record of 30-114-10, a whopping eighty-four matches under .500. Mississippi State have finished on bottom of the mythical “West” Division five times out of the last six seasons and haven’t made the postseason since 2004. The program hasn’t enjoyed much success since current Cal Head Coach Neil McGuire pulled one of the SEC’s great Houdini acts in leading Mississippi State to a divisional title in 2001.

Current Head Coach Neil MacDonald was an assistant on McGuire’s later MSU teams and did quite an admirable job in getting Mississippi State back to the SEC Tournament in 2004 after taking the job on ridiculously short notice. It’s been a horrific fall since then, as MSU have found themselves rooted to the bottom of the league more often than not since then. 2006 may have been rock bottom, with the team posting a seemingly unthinkable 2-16-0 record with losses to the likes of Sam Houston State and Gardner-Webb.

While it’s not gotten quite THAT bad since, Mississippi State has still found ways to confound observers with their uncompetitiveness. The Bulldogs lost seventeen SEC matches in a row between 2007-2009 before drawing against #7 Florida and #8 South Carolina in a stunning turn of events (albeit on terrible field conditions after torrential downpours in the area). The winless run in league play would stretch twenty-four matches before a 2-0 home win against Kentucky finally ended the pain. While the final record book may show that MSU finished 9-8-2 in 2009, it might have been the most gimmicked and trumped up record in major conference history as the Bulldogs scheduled five teams below 250 in the RPI and didn’t play a non-conference foe that finished above 147.

After more follies in league play, most dismissed Mississippi State as flotsam entering 2010. The, ahem, “creative” scheduling hit now lows last season as MSU found themselves staring down the likes of Southern Miss, South Alabama, and most shamefully, TWO SWAC teams. It was hardly surprising to see the Bulldogs slashed apart by the two legit teams they played in non-conference play, losing 3-0 to UAB at home and then getting wiped out in Stillwater by Oklahoma State, 6-0. There were fears that MSU could be in for some severe humiliation come time for SEC matches.

Sadly, those fears were mostly realized. Defeats to Auburn and Alabama on the road weren’t exactly great news, but at least the Bulldogs kept it respectable. They couldn’t claim the same the week after when they shipped seven to Florida AND South Carolina, conceding fourteen goals in the same weekend, likely a dubious SEC record. Coming back home for five matches didn’t exactly solve MSU’s woes. There were heavy losses to Georgia (3-0), a light scoring Arkansas team (4-0), an injury depleted LSU (6-2), and Kentucky (5-1). It looked like the Bulldogs were headed for their second 0-11-0 SEC season in three years with a desperate Ole Miss team coming to town. And then the Bulldogs recaptured a tiny sliver of their pride by battering their fierce rivals and winning 2-1 to end the Rebels’ season.

Quite a many observer thought that MacDonald was going to get the sack after his side brought up the rear in the SEC for the third straight season and the program’s overall shambolic record under his reign. But the Ole Miss win may have been enough to convince the brass for a little more patience. That patience can’t be eternal though, and MacDonald has to deliver some results sooner or later.

Priority number one has to be repairing one of the worst defenses in America. The Bulldogs gave up a total of fifty-three goals, tied for eleventh worst in Division I. It was even more shocking in the SEC as MSU gave up almost twice as many goals in the league (forty-one) as the next worst team in the league defensively (Ole Miss with twenty-one). While the team does say farewell to Leanna Baldner, they do get a top notch addition in Canadian youth international Shannen Jainudeen. Jainudeen figures to step into the starting lineup immediately if she lives up to her advance billing (or let’s face it, if she’s even semi-qualified for this level).

Around her, there’s not a whole lot to be honest. Morganne Grimes started every match as a freshman and will probably be one of the team’s backline stalwarts again. Katie Goodman, Serena Prendergast, and Jennifer Grant all mostly saw time off the bench and will vie for one of the open starting slots on the Bulldogs’ defense. Jainudeen’s addition should help, but there are a lot of holes that are going to take more than one good addition to fill.

There needs to be improvement in goal as well as Skylar Rosson didn’t exactly inspire confidence with her performances as a sophomore. The Bulldogs’ don’t exactly appear to be awash with contenders for her spot though, meaning MSU might be hoping that Rosson can make a breakthrough in goal this year. The only other keeper on the roster for the Bulldogs is redshirt freshman Lisa Monteith after Abby Risner left the team after starting three matches last year.

Even if Mississippi State can curb their painful habit of letting goals in by the bucketful, there’s still the little issue of improving on an offense that was also the worst in the SEC (although by not as big a margin as the defense). The team loses five attackers though few were heavyweights on the stats sheet. Sophomore Elisabeth Sullivan does look like a decent find though and hammered home six goals with five assists as a freshman. Most importantly, Sullivan didn’t stop scoring in SEC play, with three goals and two assists in league action. It may now just be a matter of her getting to replicate that scoring in crunch time as none of her goals last year were game winners.

The other main threat looks to be senior Tarah Henderson who had some offensive success with four goals in 2008 but has only had one goal in the two years since and could be used in defense this year. The team does face the loss of Rachel Wannek though after four goals and four assists last season, though most of that damage was done out of league play. Katy Hoover and Taylor Turnipseed provide depth up front but little proven production so far.

The midfield was rocked by the offseason loss of Mexican international Monica Alvarado, who transferred to TCU after starting seventeen matches last season for the Bulldogs. Kim Pettit was a decent threat in front of goal in non-conference play despite coming off the bench in most games. But Pettit’s presence in league play was sporadic at best. Besides Pettit, there’s still a fair amount of experience returning to the midfield for MSU.

Madison McKee was one of two players to start every match for the Bulldogs last season and had three goals. Jasmine Simmons started nineteen matches and racked up seven points and could see action all over the pitch for the team this year. Junior Zehra Syed started twelve matches last year, while Lauren Morgan will be looking to get back in action after missing almost all of last year through injury. MacDonald has been searching Canada for recruits as of late and in addition to Jainudeen has also locked up midfielder Dana Forbes who looks like a player quite capable of seeing major minutes early for the Bulldogs this year, possibly as a right winger.

To be brutally blunt, it’s going to take something near miraculous for Mississippi State to even get a sniff of the postseason this year. But improving on last season’s one win in league play and getting off the SEC basement should be a realistic goal for the Bulldogs. Whether it will be accomplished is another matter entirely.

Projected Order of Finish

* = Projected NCAA Tournament Automatic Bid Winner

*1. Florida
2. South Carolina
3. Tennessee
4. LSU
5. Georgia
6. Kentucky
7. Auburn
8. Ole Miss

9. Alabama
10. Vanderbilt
11. Arkansas
12. Mississippi State

Non-Conference Strength of Schedule Ranking (from most to least difficult)

T1. Florida
T1. Tennessee
3. Auburn
4. Alabama
T5. Arkansas
T5. South Carolina
7. Georgia
8. LSU
9. Vanderbilt
10. Ole Miss
11. Kentucky
12. Mississippi State

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